Know when to say when

By Scott Halasz

February 18, 2014

Are some of us living too long? Much in life can become too much, maybe life itself.

Living well even into a second century is fine, but sheer vegetation at any age is stupid. What sense was there in keeping Ariel Sharon in a semi-life state for years? It’s not active euthanasia I’m contemplating, just the artificial preservation of minimal existence.

The medical profession seems to have lost (if it ever had) a sense of balance and proportion about worthwhile intervention. “Do no harm” is a fine motto, but does it mean “Try not to let any harm ever happen”? Life involves pain and death; they cannot be eliminated.

Foolish medical treatment may be driven by fear of litigation. It might be a kind of heroism, fighting death until the last bullet. Or it might be a futile hope for recovery in the face of extremely negative odds. I suspect that there are financial motives too for both doctors and hospitals — they get paid for useless efforts as well as helpful.

It’s not nice to tell doctor or patient to give up. By the time it’s clearly appropriate the patient is usually incapable of decision and medical people are afraid of it. Add to this the role of family. Are they trying to save or eliminate the relative, again with money lurking in the background?

We have tried to resolve this dilemma with advance medical directives, written instructions about what interventions we wish to have or not when we are unable to make the decision ourselves. That helps a little but ignores the variety of states and conditions to which it could be applied. Dire straits are not always terminal; remedies are sometimes possible for restoration to quality life. But some physicians will grasp at straws even when they’re told not to do so.

Quality of life is a difficult factor in deciding about elaborate medical treatment because people differ radically on what makes life worth living. You hear people say, “I’d rather be dead than. … ” Complete the sentence with some diminished but livable conditions that one does not prefer. Certainly we should not give up too soon.

Nevertheless, I think that most people could agree that preserving brain dead bodies is silly, unless one can harvest usable organs for transplanting. But who is brave enough to pull the plug?

— George Weckman is a retired professor and director of music at Christ Lutheran Church.