Legalization of physician-prescribed lethal medication for terminal patients, even on request, is bad medicine.
This is eliminating the sufferer, not the suffering. It is both unnecessary and dangerous.
Twenty years’ experience in Oregon shows that “Inadequate pain control or concern about it” is a distant sixth most-cited reason for patients to choose lethal medication, and even that statistic mixes current pain with anticipation of future pain.
Palliative medicine has excellent pain control techniques. We need to use them aggressively. At institutions such as Calvary Hospital in New York City, dedicated to care of the dying, there is no pain that is intractable, as testified to me personally by Dr. Michael Brescia, their Executive Medical Director. By day two there, no one is asking for death because, as Brescia notes, the patients get both pain relief and love. Those techniques can and should be available throughout New York State.
What of the other, more frequent, reasons cited in Oregon for physician-assisted death? They are all based in mental anguish as the patient faces decline and approaching death, and the effect of these on his or her family.
The doctor’s professional duty and great privilege is to care for, comfort, and accompany both the patient and the family to the patient’s natural death, as part of a team of caregivers. This is authentic compassion. This is what our shared humanity calls for.
If a dying loved one is suffering, it is time not for suicide, but for a new doctor: a palliative care specialist. Or two. Suicide for any reason does something bad to patients. And to families. And to us all.
Stanley Bukowski, MD