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October 30, 2014

Death, Dignity & the Question of Rights.

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I found myself in the Emergency Room of the Cleveland Clinic, diagnosed with severe heart failure.

My lower left ventricle was severely dilated and my recorded Ejection Fraction was at approximately 12-17% (they give you a plus or minus 5% in your reading). My resting heart rate was 113 and my blood pressure was 206/ 98. In short, I was at a very high risk for what is called Sudden Cardiac Death.

My cardiologist came into the room and said in his British accent, words that I will never forget;

“Ty, you’re dying.” 

In that instant, I knew two things; I was terrified and I wanted to live.

So how do we even begin to address the individual aspect of death and dying, when it comes to issues like assisted suicide or ending life support for a loved one, like a spouse or a child?

These are issues that seem beyond me. These are enormous and personal issues; but like all things, they cannot be solely individual issues. Nothing we do or say goes out without some form of influence, whether it’s for the positive or the negative.

Death though, death is a big topic.

Death is our final act within the bounds of biological life; our final moment to see and feel and interact with others who see and feel with us. As our eyes close, the eyes of loved ones around us fill with tears and living hands grasp at now unliving tissue in a futile hope to bring it back.

Every moment, most of us live in denial of the impending fact of our death.

Not a single one of us will escape its cold grasp but instead of facing this issue, we look away, call it morbid and cover it up with make up and plastic surgery.

The entertainment industry glamorizes or satirizes it, in a vain attempt at denial. Our political and religious systems polarize us on how we should judge it, see it, offer it up in countless corpses to those who don’t wave the same flag and when it is our turn,what do we do?

Death is a complex issue, how do we breech the topic of assisted suicide?

How do we discuss parents who want the right to allow their children to die in peace?

Again, we are faced with our typically polarized notions of right and wrong. We offer up reasons to have rights for anything and everything, yet ignore the responsibility these rights place upon us and those around us.

No single action or comment goes without some form of consequence, let alone decisions on death.

Today, when we pass judgments on what these people should and should not do, we rarely take the time to see them as individuals. They, like us, want some sense of control in an out of control world.

Making their final action seems to matter to them.

One such person, Brittany Maynard, plans to do so, this coming Saturday, November 1st. Some people have lauded her as a hero for personal rights; others have called her a coward and escapist. In her own words, she said “not one cell in my body wants to die.”

In a similar case in August, a London mother fought to be able to take her daughter off of life support. For 12 years the mothered nurtured and cared for a child that could not see, talk, walk, feed herself or even drink. Her quality of life was non-existent. She required round the clock medical care to live and after her last surgery, she was left writhing in constant pain.

Her non-existent quality of life went from non existent, to hell.

The mother was called brave, loving, compassionate as well as a demon and a murderer. The question was whether we have the”right” over life.

I think this notion though, as well as our polarized views, remove circumstance from the argument.

So often we respond with an attitude that one size should fit all. We like to live in a world of black and white and we want to impose our black and white on everyone else.

So where does this leave us?

How do we define an honorable or dignified death?

Does it require that we face extreme pain and torment in order to be given the martyrs logo after we pass? Is how we live a reflection of the dignity that we carry? Is our confrontation of death head on and saying, this is how I chose to leave somehow lacking in honor and morality?

The answers are not clear.

We surf through grey areas.

If we remove ourselves from our current pharmaceutical utopia of extended life programs, we would understand that many of the people, who face terminal deaths, would not have made it as long as they have naturally.

Their life was extended, but not (in many cases) improved.

So, if we can unnaturally fight to extend our lives and be called dignified, can we not also, chose to end that life of illness and disease on our own terms, and also be dignified?

I think we can.

This does not mean that I think all people should rush to schedule a life ending procedure.

SImilar to the way we approach life, I think there is also great dignity in the way we confront its end. That means choosing to stick it out, through the suffering, in order to be a lesson, to have a few more moments with loved ones, or to serve a greater cause but also having the grace to be ready to let go when it is time.

Not forcing our friends and family to go broke trying to sustain us by any means necessary.

Again, the way we chose to die, and the impact we chose to make on those closest to us, reflects our true dignity.

Do we drag them through the mire, leave them broke, suffering, exhausted and in shambles or do we walk the quiet road and say goodnight when we know it’s time.

I can’t provide solid answers for these questions. I hope that we will reflect and look with the eyes of compassion on each case before we pass judgement.


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Author: Ty Phillips

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: wikimedia

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