Appreciating Life

We live in a culture of death. Active euthanasia exists in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. In the Netherlands, parents can euthanize babies with disabilities. Young adults can kill themselves because they are going blind or because they are anorexic.

In the United States, physician-assisted suicide is permitted in Washington, Oregon, and, most recently, Vermont. It is permitted by court ruling in Montana. A person has to be at least 18 to request assistance and supposedly be within six months of dying.

Doctor-assisted suicide has little to do with alleviating pain, since that can be accomplished using non-lethal drugs. Psychological distress is probably the main reason sick people seek medical assistance to commit suicide. Distress could take the form of depression, loss of dignity or fear of losing autonomy or self-control. Pain and physical discomfort are clearly secondary reasons.

Patients who utilize physician-assisted suicide are often those who value being in control and tend to magnify the negative dimensions of dying. They are individuals who estimate that the loss of self-possession and quality of life are intolerable. They are often people concerned not to burden others yet wish to die at home.

It is when they are depressed and frightened that patients look to their physicians for poison pills. It is when they are in greatest need of mental health counseling. Unfortunately, that badly needed counseling is not always forthcoming. In tune with the implementation of Oregon’s suicide statutes, a physician can assist in the performance of a suicide without first exploring in depth the concerns of his patient that led him or her to request suicide assistance. The simple act of investigating the patient’s problems can prove beneficial. Frequently it results in a discussion that brings relief, often eliminating the desire for suicide. Although the law in Oregon does require that a patient whose judgment might be impaired as the result of depression undergo counseling, the law appears not to be carefully followed. Not even one patient killed by suicide in 2007 or 2009 was referred for a psychological evaluation (Gene Tarne, “Oregon Docs Not Evaluating for Depression Before Assisted Suicide”, 5/22/2012). Exactly one was referred in 2010 and one in 2011. From 1998 through 2011, 596 assisted suicides were reported as having occurred in Oregon.

In a state authorizing assisted suicide and recognizing a patient’s “right” to die, if no physician were willing to prescribe lethal drugs or otherwise assist in suicide, the patients “right” would be theoretical and not real. Therefore, according to bioethicist Jacob Appel, a state could reasonably require physicians to assist patients in suicide as a condition of being issued a medical license. That is a very scary thought if one focuses on the notion of religious freedom, or just personal freedom. Either be willing to violate the Hippocratic oath and the commandments or forget about being a doctor.

In those states where physician assisted suicide is permitted, the patient has to be judged to be within six months of death before any assistance can be rendered. Would a person needing to be attached to a ventilator full time for the rest of his or her life be judged as falling into that category? So far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the legislation is silent on that issue. It is probable, however, that such people would fall into the category of the dying and could be assisted to terminate their lives. Not being able to breathe is a strong indicator of forthcoming death.

Strictly speaking, however, such people would likely not need any assistance to bring their lives to a quick close. It is probable that if a person could not survive without being permanently attached to a respirator or ventilator, he or she would not need to be living in a state where assisted suicide is legal. He would simply have to indicate in a living will that he wanted no mechanical assistance to breathe or simply give an order not to be attached to a breathing apparatus.

Of course in today’s culture of death numerous people who choose life may be given a push by their caregivers in the opposite direction. Active euthanasia is not foreign to our country even though it is technically illegal—usually. Active euthanasia was legal in the case of Terry Schiavo.

Standing in sharp contrast to all this is a person who has chosen to enjoy and appreciate life even though attached permanently to a respirator. He is a middle-aged man from Brazil. Fortunately, his caregivers respect his ongoing choice for life (Lauren Enriquez, “Man Forced to Live in a Hospital for 45 Years Absolutely Loves his Life.”, 8/14/2013).

Paulo Henrique Machado of Brazil lost his mother at the age of two days. He contracted polio shortly afterward. He grew up in a hospital, São Paulo’s Hospital das Clínicas, where he has been attached full-time to an artificial respirator — since infancy. Currently a man of 45, he finds his life fulfilling. He is cheerful and happy.

A major reason for his joy is Eliana, another polio victim that he grew up with in the hospital. Several other polio victims, who contracted the disease at the same time, died, but Paulo and Eliana defied the odds and are still alive. Paulo considers Eliana his sister. They support each other.

Although both spend their lives attached to respirators and have limited mobility, each is an accomplished person. Using her mouth to hold her paintbrush, Eliana is an artist. She is also a published author. Paulo is a computer animator who has brought to life through animation a portion of one of Eliana’s books. To be entitled, The Adventures of Leca and her Friends, the animated movie records the adventure of growing up in a hospital ward with seven other polio victims all of whom in turn died but Paulo and his “sister” Eliana. Paulo, a movie fanatic, raised $65,000 online to be able to produce his movie.

The story of Paulo and Eliana constitutes a powerful prolife testimony in a world that has so little regard for the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life.

Closer to home for me is the witness of my friend Rosemary, whom I met at Fordham University in 1968; a truly remarkable woman who loves life despite her debilitated condition and lived it to the full.

Born quite normal on Nov. 4, 1939, in Astoria, Queens, New York, Rosemary grew up in a joyful Italian Catholic family. An intelligent, physically attractive, outgoing child, she was educated in Catholic schools.

After graduation she landed a job at the New York Daily News as a secretary in the circulation department. Then Rosemary applied to nursing school. She would attend Holy Name Nursing School in Teaneck, New Jersey from 1958 until 1961.

While in nursing school, she met Bob, a Seton Hall University pre-med student and started dating him but not exclusively. Nevertheless, by the time Rosemary was a senior in nursing school, she had received a marriage proposal from him and accepted it. She found herself riding on a cloud, engaged to a future physician, getting close to graduation from nursing school, and sporting a new car.

In the spring of 1961 what seemed like simple fatigue became general exhaustion and utter weakness. But Rosemary hid her symptoms and managed to continue working. She got weaker and weaker.

Finally, she visited a doctor and underwent neurological tests. It was concluded that she had polymyositis, ordinarily curable through steroid therapy. She was placed on prednisone. Suddenly, she improved dramatically. She graduated from nursing school. But at the end of six months, the disease returned with a vengeance.

Living in the family home, she became totally dependent upon her parents. She became angry and bitter, making those closest to her miserable.

She earnestly prayed to get better. But her health did not improve. She asked God how He could let this happen to her. When He seemingly did not respond, she began to feel that He did not hear her, or worse, love her.

When the opportunity arose for her to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, she became enthusiastic about the prospect. She went with a nursing school friend and her mother.

While at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, she experienced peace. She felt a closeness to God and an enormous trust and confidence in Him. God was a God of love. He would take care of her. Worrying about the future was needless. God had not abandoned her. He was there with her. Her outlook was radically transformed. She felt joy. Even if she had to spend the rest of her life — she was only 24 — as a disabled person, it would be okay. Through her experience of Lourdes, God had enlightened her mind and changed her heart. She now realized that it was her negative attitude that was preventing her from enjoying life. It was not her disability. She could now appreciate the life she had.

Instead of praying for a healing for herself, she prayed for others that their lives might improve. She felt confident that God would answer her prayers.

Rosemary went to Lourdes as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. She returned the same way. There was no physical healing. She remained crippled. Yet, she was radically changed spiritually and psychologically. Trusting totally in God’s goodness, she was confident that everything would be all right. She accepted herself with her profound disability. She rejoiced in life.

After Lourdes she elected to visit friends and relatives, go for “strolls” and attend Mass. She chose to go to the park, the beach and the movie theater. Life was now viewed as a challenge. Having given herself to God, she found meaning in each new day.

She soon needed a ventilator part-time. Today she needs one full time. What she did retain was her ability to speak, her sight and her hearing. Especially she retained her sharpness of mind. While she lost the use of her arms, she retained that of her hands. She could write, type, use the computer and, within limits, feed herself. She retained the essential elements of a personal, cerebral life. She was free of distracting pain.

With the help of generous people she returned to school. She earned two degrees at Fordham University. For three and a half years she worked for the City of New York as an advocate for disabled workers. For seven years she worked as a peer counselor for the Queens Independent Living Center. Later she developed a social work practice in her home.

In the 1970s she met and married Frank, a disabled but handsome man with considerable academic ability. Rosemary and Frank are still happily married today, nearly four decades later. Today, at age 74, Rosemary lives a rich, full, personal life, even doing some social work pro bono from her home. She has numerous personal friends and enjoys a close relationship with Our Blessed Mother and her beloved Son, Jesus. She lives in abandonment to God’s will as did the Virgin Mary. Her constant prayer is that God will provide her with the ability to accomplish what she needs to do.

Like Paulo Henrique and Eliana, Rosemary is a model of life affirmation. In the middle of a culture of death, she is a powerful witness to the fact that human life is sacred, that it is a gift of God to be cherished and not wasted.

In a world where human life is very cheap, readily eliminated by suicide, abortion, euthanasia, senseless wars and violence, Rosemary’s life speaks volumes for the worth and dignity of the human person. It teaches us to make the best of the life and talents that God has given us with gratitude toward Him and willingness in our hearts to serve others.

DR. DeCELLES, Ph.D., taught theology and religion at Marywood University for 43 years. He retired in June 2013. He is vice president of Pennsylvanians for Human Life, Scranton Chapter.