Caring for Life Near the End of Life

dyingMy wife, LaRee, and I were asked to address a conference about critical life issues sponsored by the Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey. They wanted us to speak about a Christian perspective on suffering, disability and end of life care. It is a timely topic because New Jersey is considering a law to allow assisted suicide. The diocese wanted the dual perspectives of  someone with a degenerative and incurable condition like multiple sclerosis (me) ? and the perspective of a loved-one watching the deterioration and unable to stop it (my wife).

LaRee and I looked forward to going to New Jersey for two reasons: Firstly, we thought we could bring a needed life-affirming Christian story to the debate that is raging in that state. Secondly, we were going to celebrate our 40th anniversary after the conference in nearby city of New York. It was not to be.

LaRee’s aged mother’s frail physical condition started to take a life-threatening turn for the worse in Edmonton (Canada). We could not risk being so far away from her. Once again, my wife’s is giving a profound witness, by her actions, for Christian care of those who are vulnerable and cannot care for themselves. We cancelled our trip.

My wife’s active love for others has been illustrated for more than half of her lifetime.

Her mother lives in a secular nursing home and has dementia; her confusion makes her frightened and she cries out for LaRee.  As soon as she enters her mother’s room, all is calm again because she knows she is safe with LaRee near.

Unfortunately, my wife has deep reservations about anything that would put her mother in secular acute care hospital settings. That should come as no surprise in the current climate sympathetic to euthanasia. The threat of her mother being denied nutrition and hydration (food and water) is very real. LaRee’s grandmother endured that cruel fate ten years ago and died a torturous death.  It happens all the time to vulnerable people. In this new bioethical era, the incurably ill, dying, aged, and severely disabled are increasingly fearful of  hospitals where some physician ? with full backing of a hospital ethics committee ? may decide providing treatment to them is futile. Happily, I know of no instance where this has occurred in any Catholic hospital.

Treatments may be futile but the patient is never futile. Doing anything to hasten the death of a sick or dying person is always wrong and flies in the face of a very long tradition of Hippocratic medicine. That’s why I previously wrote that Catholic hospitals must never acquiesce to trends in bioethics that do not recognize the innate dignity and worth of every human being regardless of their state or stage in life.

Whether or not physicians working in Catholic hospitals are Catholic, they must adhere to the principles of Catholic teaching. As a person with advanced multiple sclerosis, I want to know I can rest confident knowing that medical decisions about my care follows those teachings.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that euthanasia is morally unacceptable (2277-2279). Any act of omission that causes death (like withholding food and water) is considered as murder and must always be forbidden. The Church does recognize there are times when active treatment designed to cure a dying patient ceases to be appropriate. “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate”. If death of a patient is imminent, “painkillers to alleviate sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means.” In such cases, death is recognized as inevitable but not hastened. The underlying principle is one of motive and intent. Death must never be the intent of any medical action or inaction. If a cure is not possible, care still is. Killing is immoral and never acceptable!

This is the ethic by which every Catholic hospital must operate its end of life care. They must always act in accordance with Catholic teaching on matters of life and death and never give in to trends in bioethics, secular pressures or financial burdens.

I am aware that American Catholic hospitals face difficult and challenging days ahead in this regard (and the demand to provide abortions) under Obamacare.  Stand firm against the pressure; do not give in. Catholic care must prevail over Obamacare.  If vulnerable people  cannot rely on Catholic care to always value their lives, where can they go to be safe?

I mentioned that that my mother-in-law feels safe when LaRee is near. Even in her mounting dementia she seems to know she’s in good hands. LaRee’s Christianity and familial love motivates her to stand in the gap for her vulnerable loved-ones. Within the past few days she combed through her mother’s advanced directive from 2009, and updated it to reflect 2013’s reality. She met with her mother’s treating physician to make sure every measure for comfort is given and ordinary care owed to all sick people is not interrupted (just like the Catechism says).

By caring for her mother in this way, LaRee is giving a vivid testimony to a culture of life that treats dying as the last phase of living in which the bonds of humanity are strengthened, not weakened.


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