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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Terri Schiavo, Johnny Carson, COPD, the end of life and our right to die

Yesterday I wanted to do a lengthy post about Johnny Carson and emphysema and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), but there just wasn't the time. Carson had emphysema because he was such a heavy smoker for so many years, and it appears he died from it.

COPD is a horrible way to go. Although the ravages of lung cancer are firmly embedded in the popular imagination, people are much less familiar with the devastation that COPD can wreak.

My dad died from COPD. Yes, there were other extenuating circumstances and there were more immediate causes of death, specifically an accident and a morphine overdose. I now realize, however --- just as the medical people involved tried to explain to me --- that the accident may have been the specific singular incident which lead to his downfall and the morphine overdose may have been immediately causative, but he was already well on his way to death from COPD.

From what I know, there are two "folk" categories for people suffering from COPD: red puffers and blue bloaters. My dad was a blue bloater --- no emphysema but chronic bronchitis and suffering its innumerable ravages. Unlike some people with COPD, he was also quite thin, which was symptomatic of his descent toward death --- he never bloated, but instead lost his appetite due to dementia and the beginning stages of organ failure.

This picture of Carson could serve as a fairly good representative of the ravages of COPD. Although I can't state with absolute certainty that Carson's bloated appearance is a consequence of COPD, I would wager a guess that it is.

It isn't simply a matter of difficulty breathing with COPD. My father exhibited signs of dementia his last three or four years of life, and was suffering kidney failure, among other things. You see, nicotine doesn't just affect the lungs --- it's also a toxic substance which damages the kidneys and other organs. I think I read somewhere that Carson was suffering liver failure --- my father's liver was also failing as a result of years of smoking.

So what does any of this have to do with Terri Schiavo?

Quite simply, there are fates much worse than death. And it certainly looks to me like Terri Schiavo has been forced to suffer a fate much, much, much worse than death.

I spent six months watching my father die. Yes, he was cognizant --- much more cognizant than Schiavo. But I can pinpoint the exact moment "he" died. It was approximately three months before his body died. He'd emerged from a month long coma, and we enjoyed about another month of "him," albeit "him" in a somewhat altered form from his usual self. But things spun out of control --- there was simply too much damage to his body --- and "his" last words to me as "himself" were "Are you going to be alright?" I knew he was asking for permission to die, and I told him yes, I will --- you just do whatever you need to do.

From there, it was as though we were watching the layers of his brain burning off. It was a slow, torturous, horrific thing to witness, accompanied by all the classic signs of impending death. Seeing dead bodies and ghosts of those long past was the easiest part. It was seeing the feet turn purple then, a week or so later, the lower legs turning purple, the signs of multi-organ failure, infections of the most horrific kind. Bit by bit, shutting down. But still talking and joking and laughing all the way there. But not as himself.

It would have been a profound injustice --- immoral, in fact, as immoral as the war or murder or the worst kinds of torture --- for us to have hooked him up to feeding tubes and life support, although we had to fight them tooth and nail to keep them from doing that.

Continuously throughout his life, my dad had specified he wanted to be taken out back and shot, should he ever reach the point that he did. Needless to say, we couldn't do that --- but we could fight the powers that be from prolonging his life into eternity by feeding tubes. I have friends now who were unaware of how cruel those feeding tubes are --- the body of their father has been on a feeding tube for three years now. But he's no longer there and hasn't been for years.

Why we as a people have done what we've done to Terri Schiavo, I will never understand. I'm reminded of all the familiar arguments by this post on Kos. Yet, the arguments for keeping her hooked to that tube strike me as emerging from nothing more than selfishness. It's only for our benefit that we insist she stay connected. It's a national "feel good" campaign.

And it's not that I'm a full advocate of euthanasia, because I'm not. But there comes a point at which we are no longer prolonging life, but simply salving our conscience in the most selfish of ways.

She deserves some peace.

1 Comments:

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Leila M. said...

No argument from me, here. I watched my father slowly deteriorate from MS for fifteen years. Oddly enough, he also died accidentaly, in a house fire.

 

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