George Weigel recently published an article about Canada’s “vulnerability to the culture of death.” Weigel recounted the horrifying story of a 63-year-old man with bladder cancer who was admitted to the hospital with a relatively minor infection. Instead of treating the man, the hospital determined that it would be more humane to allow him to die from the infection than from the cancer, for which he was receiving treatment.
So they neglected to give him antibiotics and instead “treated” him with large doses of morphine.
Weigel’s thesis is that Canada’s single-payer health care system encourages hospitals to opt for euthanasia as the “sounder public policy.”
Our experience at Life Legal tells us that cold-hearted utilitarianism is not limited to countries with single-payer systems.
Two weeks ago, we received a call from John, the distraught son of an elderly woman who had mild dementia. Another family member had put his mother in a hospice facility. When John went to visit her, she recognized him and asked him to bring her a milkshake, as she was hungry. John happily obliged. The following day, he learned that the hospice facility had removed his mother’s food and was giving her high doses of morphine. She was not on a feeding tube and had not expressed discomfort that could not be managed with ordinary pain medicine. John called Life Legal and our staff immediately reached out to local attorneys. We prepared the documents to seek a court order to reinstate her food the same day.
At 6:30 the next morning, John called to let me know his mother had passed away just an hour before. In addition to the grief over losing his precious mother, John was utterly confused as to why a hospice facility would facilitate the death of a woman who was coherent enough to recognize her children and ask for her favorite treat just days before.
In many cases, we are able to intervene in time to save a life. In this case, we mobilized as quickly as humanly possible, but John’s mother passed away before we could get before a judge.
Life Legal is determined to do whatever is within our power to advocate for people whose lives are threatened solely because someone has determined that they don’t serve a useful purpose. And when we can’t do that, we regroup to figure out what we can do to ensure a better outcome in the next case.
Here are some things we have implemented so far:
1. We are collaborating with other organizations that serve the disabled, elderly, and other vulnerable populations so that together we can provide legal counsel and other needed services before an emergency arises.
2. We are working with doctors who can evaluate medical records, provide statements regarding appropriate care and treatment, and serve as expert witnesses.
3. We have hired a part-time paralegal to work with family members and with our local attorneys in order to provide legal support on the ground as quickly as possible.
4. We are resourcing local attorneys by creating a dedicated website so they can access legal documents.
5. We are partners in the Caring Not Killing Coalition and are co-organizing a conference on denial of care and other issues to be held in Los Angeles on November 18, 2017.
Here are some things YOU can do to protect yourself and your loved ones:
1. Regardless of your age, make sure you have an advance directive in place naming a trusted individual as your health care agent. In the past year, most of our cases involved people under 40 years old who suffered serious injuries, but had not designated anyone to make health care decisions for them.
2. Set aside time to talk with your health care agent about your specific wishes for care and treatment, should you become incapacitated in any way.
3. Familiarize yourself with terms involved in decision making on issues surrounding your care, including Do Not Resuscitate Orders, “extraordinary care,” and others.
4. If you use a template for your advance directive or durable power of attorney, make sure it reflects the type of care you want. Some trust preparers and online forms include boilerplate language refusing all life-prolonging treatment, including artificial nutrition, hydration, and ventilator support in the event of a serious injury or illness.
5. If you do not have someone you trust to make health care decisions for you, consider using a Physicians Order for Life Sustaining Treatment, or POLST. Make sure you fill out the form carefully as this is a legally binding document.
6. Read through our online document on Making Health Care Decisions.
7. Consider attending the Caring Not Killing Conference in November.
Together we can work—as George Weigel says—“to warm chilled souls and rebuild a civil society committed to human dignity” from conception on.