Health Care and Good Deaths

Today, being the Sunday closest to the feast Day of St. Luke, is celebrated as Health Care Sunday in certain churches (I'm endebted to my friend and colleague Derek Johnston for the St. Luke's Day factoid). However, my thoughts about health care are currently coloured by a number of factors:

  • My participation this week in a major consultation among hospital staff in our Health Trust about the future of Palliative Care.
  • The controversial death, by assisted suicide of paraplegic rugby player Daniel James.
  • The death of a "parishioner" last night in the local Marie Curie Hospice.
  • My continuing ministry to a lady who is visibly fading before our eyes and yet who still seeks to minister to others through prayer.
  • The fact that today is the anniversary of my own mother's death 17 years ago.
Death is, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, together with taxes, one of life's unnegotiables, yet we live in a death-denying, if not defying, society. We do all that we can to avert it, or divert our eyes from it. We have an entire cosmetics and "health-food" industry founded upon this futile task, and, I believe, we have a health service that has bought into this culture, hook, line and sinker, with totally unnecessary and illconcieved procedures being carried out on people for no appreciable improvement in their quality of life, even if they, occasionally increase the quantity of that life spent on this planet.

I think there are two reasons for this. First that death is seen as the ultimate failure by some medical practicioners. Second that some surgeons and doctors live in very real fear of litigation by some distraught next of kin who believes that medical professionals ARE God (as opposed to just acting as if they are) and can prolong life indefinitely.

Having seen the results of such procedures I am going to prepare a card to hang around my neck when I get to a certain age... It will say, in 6 inch high letters "Don't you dare come near me with a scalpel!"

Someone once said, "Old age isn't so bad, when you consider the alternative."
Speaking as a Christian and someone who visits old age homes, hospitals and hospices regularly I want to say "Death isn't so bad when you consider the alternative!"

And I would agree with Tony Benn's mother, who is reputed to have told him: 'Death is God's last and kindest gift.'
This, however, must be held in tension with the tradition in Christianity which sees death as an enemy to be defeated (Corinthians 15: 6; II Timothy 1: 10). It is... and it has been. It is the enemy of life and love... Anyone who has lost someone close to them will affirm that... But it has been defeated through Christ and his resurrection and one day we will experience the full extent of that victory...

Until then, however, the balance of life and death continues. The purpose of health care should be to support life... but not always to stave off death. Sometimes a good death opens a way to a healing that is not possible in this world.

Does this mean that I am supportive of active euthanasia, to use the Greek for "good death", but which means much more than the phrase used casually at the consultation on palliative care this week? No... I'm not... In the same way that I am not supportive of abortion... Capital punishment... or War. I am unashamedly pro-life. But then, most people are... I would, however, in ALL of the above, never say never... Because whilst I do not believe in a sliding scale of sins, I do believe that there can sometimes be a choice to be made between a greater and a lesser evil.

So I'm not going to pontificate about the choice of Daniel James to ask his parents to end his life. I am saddened that he was in such a place spiritually or psychologically where that seemed the only way out... and I do hope that his parents, forced to make a devastating choice themselves, are not further traumatised by facing prosecution.

My mother effectively took her own life. Not through active suicide. But through deliberately choosing to ignore the advice and prescribed treatment of specialists and keeping the seriousness of her emphysema from the rest of the family. She had seen other family members go through the treatment required to maintain life for a few extra years and had effectively decided that she couldn't face it. So she didn't... And the first flu she took killed her.

Is she any more likely to be in a place of blessed wholeness now than Daniel James? Or less likely than someone who didn't know about their condition?

Ideally I want to live until I die... Really live. Even if I do face significant health challenges in the future I hope I can buy into the current spin of the hospice and cancer-treatment sectors, that "We do not die from cancer... we live with it." But if my capacity for an action-packed life diminishes with time, I hope that I recieve the sort of health care that isn't just about prolonging life, but about enhancing, if not hastening the experience of death, if not for me (and I AM a coward of the Woody Allen "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens"-type), certainly for any loved ones who might have to go through it with me.

In this I am most inspired by the lady I am currently ministering to in a local nursing home. As I have repeatedly stated, on this blog and elsewhere... I often go to minister to her and find that she, weak as she is, ministers more to me.

May I live my whole life as one prepared, and who helps others to prepare, for death.


Mr. Moo said…
Beautiful writing, thank you David.
Anonymous said…
wonder what is it in the ether that has us writing on the same issues at the same time?

thanks david

Popular posts from this blog

A Woman of no Distinction

A Psalm for Sunday: Praise to the Lord who Listens...

I am the True Vine