St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 was established in 1823 and is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. (Photo by The Times-Picayune Archive)
"Removing life support may be an act of faith and worship accomplished while committing ourselves and the patient to God."
A friend of mine sustained brain injuries in a motorcycle accident in August. He never regained consciousness after the accident.?Several weeks after the accident his physicians, chaplains, social workers and family members met to discuss a pivotal question about his care. How long should he remain connected to the machine that was breathing for him?
An interesting part of the table talk in that meeting was the distinction between curative and palliative care. A ventilator is considered by some to be a curative procedure while a feeding tube in considered palliative. Curative care aims to heal the patient. Palliative care seeks only to keep the patient comfortable and free of pain.
An intensive care unit fights to save the patient and applies curative medicine. A hospice seeks to keep the patient comfortable and applies only palliative procedures. The verb ?palliate? means reduce the severity of something. Palliative care treats the symptoms rather than the cause.
A hospice facility is not designed to receive a patient on a ventilator because a ventilator is not consistent with its purpose. If a ventilator is still considered appropriate medical treatment, then that patient is not ready for hospice.
My father?s heart condition was incurable. Fluid accumulated around his heart and was drained from his chest repeatedly. Finally even this procedure brought no relief. ?Nothing is working,? he told his physician, and his physician recommended that the efforts to remove the fluid be suspended. My father went into hospice care and died a few days later at home in the presence of family and friends.
I understood intellectually the distinction between curative care and hospice. But the enormity of it only dawned on me when I watched my father dying and no efforts were made to save him. We gave him comfort but no cure.
Maybe we cannot imagine it now, but one day many of us may say concerning ourselves or our loved one, ?Nothing is working.? On that day we may ask for death to make a visit. And death will come like the friend it is to mortals trapped in decaying bodies racked with pain.
If we can see that death is good sometimes, if we receive it with gratitude in certain situations, might it be proper to remove artificial supports and allow the natural process to take its course?
Life is a sacred gift from God. We receive life with joy despite its troubles and sorrows. We work to protect life always from the womb to the tomb. We do not create life, and we should not end it. We live in faith, courage, patience and hope. We seek to help and not to harm.
?Thou shalt not kill? prohibits murder in all its forms including the killing of infants, the killing of self and the killing of the elderly or the sick. Humans are most inclined to violate this command at the beginning of life and the end of life.
Great strides in medical care have enabled physicians to keep human hearts beating and lungs breathing even when the patient?s brain is damaged beyond repair. At such times, medical professionals and family members act appropriately when they suspend curative treatment.
We may actively and prayerfully entrust the patient to God as we remove life supporting devices. We do not know if the lungs and heart will continue to function. We only know that human efforts to extend life with extraordinary interventions are no longer helpful.
Removing life support may be an act of faith and worship accomplished while committing ourselves and the patient to God.
Suspending curative care is not the same as euthanasia ? killing a person who has an incurable illness or injury. Actively taking the life of someone who is sick is forbidden by the command ?Thou shalt not kill.? It usurps the place of God, interrupts his grace, and devalues all human life. Killing is not the same as suspending curative measures.
Palliative care is increasingly effective in giving comfort to the dying. Allowing the natural processes to bring death, if God wills, is loving and faithful care for those who are terminally ill.
David Crosby is pastor of First Baptist Church New Orleans.