While many people say they hope for a quick death, and wish to die at home, it’s very hard to die naturally or suddenly today.
After all, we have an infrastructure that was built to save lives, from the 911 emergency phone system to the life-prolonging apparatus known as the medical industrial complex.
On the one hand, this is a very good thing. If you are in a bad car accident, chances are that you will be taken to a hospital quickly and your life can be saved. Your chances of surviving a life-threatening injury are dramatically higher today than, say, in the 1940s, not to mention the 1300s.
Before modern medicine and advanced medical technology, we had a different way of speaking about death. In the Christian tradition, the virtuous person accepted death and then went to heaven without a fight.
Today, the language we use to describe our battle against death is anaologous to warfare, as Jeff Schechtman points out in his Specific Gravity interview with the journalist Katy Butler, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.
Of course, there was not a lot one could do to battle death in the 14th century, whereas today we talk about medical technology helping us to possibly achieve immortality, and we say this with a straight face. But what does this say about the quality of life of patients who are kept alive – in the case of Butler’s father, for three years – whose experience is one of prolonged suffering?
In the podcast below, Butler describes the experience of watching her father – an intellectually vigorous college professor – decline into a condition where he couldn’t name his own children. Butler’s 2010 New York Times Magazine article, “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” describes how a pacemaker forced “my father’s heart to outlive his brain.”
According to Butler, we are good at saving lives, but have failed to have a clear-headed conversation about when it is the right time to let someone die. As Butler points out, when a provision designed to do just that was included in the Affordable Care Act, it set off charges of “death panels.”
Death panels notwithstanding, Schechtman tells us, “the great elephant in the room in the health care discussion is the huge cost of keeping alive those already in the final stages of life. Is there a better way to approach this, or to even discuss it? Right now, we are doing neither.”
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