First, do no harm …

Yesterday, a news story came up on my FB feed.  I’m still thinking about it and trying to figure out how I feel about it.  I decided to write about it, hoping it might help me process my thoughts.  It’s about a 29-year-old woman with stage 4 brain cancer (glioblastoma, the same kind of tumor that Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) on ER had) and she is going to die on November 1.  She lives in the U.S., in a state where, apparently, there are laws in place that allow patients to take their own life when terminally ill.  She states she’s not committing suicide, rather, she is taking control of her illness and deciding when and how she will succumb to it, not the other way around.  Most of the comments posted after the article are all like, “Wow, what a brave woman”, “Good for her”, “I’d do the same”.

Really?  I was kind of surprised that no one seemed to question the ethics here.

I can’t even begin to imagine what this woman is going through. To be diagnosed at such a young age with terminal cancer, it’s truly heartbreaking and tragic. One of my colleagues said she’d probably do the same if she were in that situation.  I’m really not sure I would, to be honest.  Or maybe I would? How can one ever know until faced with the reality?

I have three children.  This young woman has none.  Would her decision change if she had kids?  How would you explain to your children that you are going to end your own life before the cancer gets a chance to?

Death is a natural part of life – granted, dying at 29 doesn’t seem all that natural.  Dying at 90 on the other hand, does.  Still, we are all going to die, none of us can ever know when or how, that is, unless we are diagnosed with a terminal illness and even then, no one really knows how long we have.  Last spring, I visited a patient dying of prostate cancer. I saw him about 12 hours before he passed, peacefully, at home, surrounded by his family. When I spoke to his wife the following morning, she struggled with the fact that she was asleep when he died.  I wondered if it would have been easier for her to witness his death? I’m sure it would have been difficult regardless.  To the very end, my patient hoped and prayed for a miracle.  It was never stated, but you could see it in his eyes. He didn’t want to die; he didn’t want to leave his wife and children. He should have had more time. He kept fighting to the very end.  I admired him for that.

I have a hard time knowing that this young woman is going to actively end her life. That she picked the day she was going to do it, much like one picks a wedding day.  It’s two days after her husband’s birthday.   She has been told there is no cure, that her final days will be spent in pain, perhaps with multiple seizures and it’s not something she wants her family to witness.  I understand that, I really do, but there are ways of helping dying patients be more comfortable in the final stages of life.  It’s the whole reason Palliative care exists.  The process of dying has to remain a natural part of life, once we start helping patients to die, we no longer adhere to the Hippocratic Oath, in my opinion.

First, do no harm.  A physician, in good conscience, cannot be a party to the death of another human being. I can already hear those on the other side of the argument – NOT assisting a patient to “die with dignity”, causes harm.  I don’t believe it does and I don’t think this is what Hippocrates had in mind when he wrote the Oath.  I don’t wish for any individual to suffer on their deathbed, far from it. Medicine has come a long way in the past 150 years – expected death can be painless for the vast majority of patients.  I think we are actually inviting more harm to patients, their family, and society as a whole if we decide that assisted suicide, euthanasia, dying with dignity – whatever you want to call it – is okay.

It’s just not.