QUESTION: What to do if the Doctor suggests stopping life support?
RESPONSE: No one wants to be in the position of determining when a person dies, not doctors, not family. Yet sometimes, way too often, that decision must be made.
Our society today expects physicians to be able to keep all of us alive. Doctors “fix” people. They don’t let them die. That is society’s thinking even though it is incorrect thinking.
Everybody dies. At some point we will be faced with the dying of people we care about, at some point we will face our own approaching death AND it won’t be easy!
With our medical expertise we can keep a body breathing artificially (ventilators), heart and blood pressure working (medications), peeing artificially (dialysis), sleeping artificially (induced coma), but none of this indefinitely and why should we when death will come someday no matter what?
For discussion purposes I am going to talk about breathing and not address peeing, medications and sleeping (too many individual circumstances to muddy the discussion). What is being accomplished by keeping a body breathing indefinitely when there is no chance of fixing, no chance of returning the body to even being alert, functioning a little bit, of actually living vs. just breathing?
Our basic instinct says “I want my mom where I can see and touch her even if she isn’t responding”. The idea of never having mom (which death gives us) seems just plain unacceptable. I want mom no matter what!” “Keep her alive!” (In this case alive means breathing).
Now to the question of what to do once the unselfish decision of removing the life support medications and equipment has occurred.
Gather all the significant people and individually have each person talk with the person soon to be taken off life support. Have them say what is in their heart, positive and negative (remember there is no perfect relationship). I have no doubt that the person can hear what is being said.
Touch, hold, cry, talk. As hard as it will be tell this person you love and care about that you understand it is time for them to leave, you need to tell them you understand it is time. It isn’t okay, but you understand. Talk about the past, talk about your future, talk from your heart.
Know that when the equipment is removed breathing may continue for a bit or maybe not. It may appear they are gasping with mouth movements, maybe body movements, maybe not. Know that what you are watching is the body struggling to continue as well as struggling to cease. Think of a little chick working hard to get out of its shell. We work hard to get out of the shell we call a physical body. The effort looks harder to us the watchers than it actually is.
As you watch all this occurring continue to cry, continue to talk to your loved one, touch them, hold them, get in bed with them if you want. Say goodbye, how much you will miss them, that you wish them well on their journey. Express your love as you say goodbye.
When death has arrived ask the hospital if you can have a few moments alone with your loved one. Again, tell them goodbye, touch them, hug them if you want. Again, tell them what their life has meant to you, positive and negative. This is your last really private time. Speak from your inner most place. Know your words, thoughts and feelings will be the sails of their ship as they become gone from your sight. (I love that poem. It gives us a gentle picture of being left behind.)
Something more about Letting Go......
I wrote Gone From My Sight thirty years ago after sitting at the bedside of hundreds of patients going through their final act of living. I wrote it because there wasn't any information for families or patients as to what to expect during the dying process. Gone From My Sight is printed in seven languages (with Armenian being added this fall) so families all over the world can benefit from this important information. Knowledge reduces fear. If you know anyone who is going through the dying process where english is their second language, won't you check the website for a copy of "the little blue book" in their native tongue.