From WILLIAM EDELEN (1988)
The Contrary Minister
The scene is in the intensive care section of an Oklahoma hospital. The woman strapped to the bed is 84 years old. She is my mother. I am sitting beside her with my wife.
A doctor enters the room. He is called a specialist. He walks over to the old, tired, pain-racked body and says cheerfully: “Mrs. Edelen, we are going to make you as shiny and bright as new. I have two surgeons standing by in the wings, just waiting to come on stage and go in there and fix you up like new.”
My mother stared at him. Her eyes narrowed, and in as strong and firm a voice as she could muster, she said these words to him:
“I want you to understand something. This is my body. It is not your body. I own it. I will tell you what you may or may not do with my body and my son will enforce it. There will be NO surgery. There will be NO chemotherapy. There will be NOTHING done that will keep me from dying a natural death.”
I said to the doctor: “She means it.” He stared for a moment at both of us and turned and left the room.
After a long, painful process of decision making, we moved her from intensive care to a nursing home where she could receive 24-hour attention.
As my wife and I were walking down the halls one day looking into rooms where bodies were strapped to beds, bodies that had no idea who and where and what they were, my wife said out loud, to anyone within earshot, “This is a torture chamber.”
Once back to Idaho, I was relating this experience to a good friend of mine, a Boise doctor.
His response was: “We in the medical profession can take no pride in what we are doing to those older persons in those conditions. A triumph of medicine? Hardly. Keeping bodies alive cannot be considered a triumph if the mind is gone. The heart of the matter is this: Physicians cannot do it. The politicians and the courts will not do it. The individual must do it.“
My doctor friend did not mince words. He said it well. It is a problem that we as a society, collectively, in fear and trembling, are refusing to deal with. And yet it is a problem that we all — every last one of us — are going to have to deal with individually.
In an issue of New Republic there was an excellent article by Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm, entitled Long Time Dying. I pass on to you one quote from it. A nurse wrote in Nursing Magazine: “We cannot shut our eyes to the fact that resuscitation machinery is very expensive, and if the equipment is not used there is no return on the investment.”
Today in these United States, there are hundreds of thousands of persons existing — not living, existing — in continuing, sustained, baffled, misery, in pain and anguish, imprisoned in nursing homes and hospitals, isolated, alone, prolonging miserable and painful day after miserable and painful day. I do not think that I overstate the situation when I call it a crime. A crime against humanity.
That “great dane,” theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard asks this question: “What is reflection? Only this. Simply to reflect on these two questions. How did I get into this world and how do I get out of it again? How does it all end for me? What is thoughtlessness? Only this, to muster everything in order to drown out all thought about my own exit.”