Straight Up with Sherri

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Am I On Life Support?

I have yet to find a story of a handicapped person, or someone once diagnosed as PVS, or on a feeding tube come out to say they think that dehydrating and starving Terri to death was the "right" or the "merciful" thing to do. This alone speaks VOLUMES! So don't give me this mercy nonsense. Don't give me this "her wishes" crud.

Am I On Life Support?

By Lawrence Henry
Published 4/1/2005 12:07:37 AM

Call me sensitive about such things.

Back in the '90s, when my wife and I belonged to a Boston tennis club, we got together with the rest of the membership for a round-robin mixed doubles tournament and brunch. Lovely occasion, lots of fun, and as we sat around the table after playing and eating, the discussion turned to issues of the day, one of which was health care.

A young man across from me said, "I'm a surgeon, and I certainly think it's within bounds for me to refuse to provide my services to certain people. For example, smokers."

I was smoking an after-meal pipe.

"I have a kidney transplant," I said. "It's lasted thirteen years. It's given me a new life. I have a wife and a son. Would you deny me that chance if you were the transplant surgeon?"

The young man had the grace to withdraw his gambit, in an embarrassed way. It was clear to the whole table full of people -- without rancor, too; things were nicer ten years ago -- that confronting a real person was a whole different thing than talking about a medical abstraction.

YOU COULD MAKE THE ARGUMENT that I have been on life support for 30 years.

My native kidneys failed in 1975. I spent the next six years on hemodialysis, a process so ill understood by the general public even today that I should explain it.

Hemo (or "blood") dialysis, "the kidney machine" as most people half-comprehend it, removes blood from the body through one tube, connected to an artery, runs it through a filter, then returns it to the body through another tube, connected to a vein. The machine itself holds the filter, the pump, and the filtration fluid and circulating system, and routes the blood through the mechanism.

A patient spends three sessions a week on hemodialysis, each session lasting (then) four or five hours (nowadays, three). In between, he watches his diet carefully, far more carefully than any would-be weight-loser does, for a variety of nutrient contents and for overall fluid intake.

Dialysis might have been denied me back then, it was still so new and scarce. "If your kidneys had failed two or three years earlier," one of my doctor pals told me, "you would have been dead. We would have taken a look at you, single guy, drug abuser, rock and roll musician, and said, 'No way. We need these machines for parents with kids.'"

There are more than 80,000 people on dialysis in the U.S. at any one time. On life support?

EVERY YEAR, ABOUT A FIFTH of the people on dialysis get a kidney transplant, as I did in 1981. When a transplant works, it works spectacularly and instantly, as mine did. For 22 years, except for the pills I took and the doctor visits I made, I did not know there was anything different about me.

Of course there was. Suppose my supply of immunosuppressants had been interrupted by a political upheaval. Suppose prednisone had been banned by the FDA. Suppose I had found myself lost on a camping trip. This is not quite so far-fetched a hazard as it sounds. Humorist Lewis Grizzard died because the transplanted pig valve in his heart got infected while he was in Russia, away from the care that he needed, and needed fast.

Nonetheless, you don't risk much if you don't presume to a globe-trotting lifestyle. Is this life support, however distantly? The transplant will fail some day, almost certainly. Without readily available, highly sophisticated medical intervention, a transplant recipient will die if something suddenly goes wrong. It definitely can.

THAT TWO-DECADE KIDNEY FAILED, and then another transplant failed in two years, and here I am again using hemodialysis. (I will transition in about a month to a form of home dialysis called peritoneal dialysis.) There are some pains and drawbacks associated with hemo, but you deal with more boredom than agony. But, take my word for it, dialysis makes you feel a whole lot better than you feel in late-stage renal failure.

As my second transplant failed this time, I came very near giving up. I did not realize -- really did not know until now -- how thoroughly sick I had gotten, over how long a period. My health had declined steadily for almost four years, nearly two at the end of the first transplant, and throughout the two years of the second transplant, which never really kicked in the way it should have.

So here I am in Terri Schiavo days, and you will forgive me if in this whole intense storm I feel a whole lot more like a target than an advocate. With every dialysis treatment, I feel better, and I am grateful to be restored to my family in better shape than I have been for a long time.

Am I on life support? I suppose I am. Long before the Schiavo case broke on the national scene, when I felt at my worst, as I thumbed through a file on my desk, I found the health-care proxy I had signed before my second transplant. A health-care proxy is of course not a living will. Nonetheless, moved by some impulse I did not then understand, I tore it up. I find myself quite reluctant to sign another.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.


  • It isn't the begining of a Holocaust.

    It's about people in a certain medical state wanting to die. (In Ms Schiavo's case, her wishes could not be proven, so I was against euthanizing her.)

    Maybe you can't imagne wanting to die in such a situation, but a lot of people value life on experiences, not being able to perform bodily functions. They think that life isn't worth living when you are a prisoner to a hospital bed.

    Question: Do you have any records of people on life support (and in the other various conditions you mentioned) who were against the removal of the feeding tube?

    I am asking sincerly, I am sure that you do. It' just that the lack of something doesn't really provide proof of anything. The lack of support for killing Ms Schiavo amongst the group of people you mentioned does not prove that they were against it.

    Just asking for your info.

    I just feel that the framing of the discussion has shifted from where it belongs. Euthanasia is an individual thing, not a harbinger for a new holocaust. (Correct me if I am failing to understand your point.)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:57 AM  

  • No, you need no correcting at all....

    You have very well stated the way you view this.

    We agree on one thing..

    Her wishes could not be proven.

    As for Euthanasia, I think we disagree.

    Th problem, and dangers, as I see it, are the definiton of words.

    Euthanasia was once considered humane to the terminally ill that were in pain. (I have to admit, as much as I hate the idea, this is where I have no good answers. It is ME shoving my ideas and wants onto someone else- which is exactly what I don't like abuot the "I wouldn't want to live like that crowd." So I have to just flat out admit- I am biased in this circumstance.)

    Now, back to Euthanasia was once considered humane to the terminally ill that were in pain.

    Now euthanasia is being applied not to just terminally ill, but to those under "long term care." They are TOTALLY different!

    The slippery slope has begun. They changed the defintion of life support. We now are discussing euthanasia for those under "long term care." It is spinning out of control.

    My hope is that those that may disagree on certain things, can somehow move together and start working on those things that we DO agree on.

    I have grown and learned a LOT thanks to Terri. I hate her suffering, but am grateful for the lessons her suffering has taught me.

    My question was sincere. If anyone has a record of handicapped people on feeding tubes thinking that killing Terri this way was okay- I would honestly love to hear about them.

    I think it is important to get the thoughts and opinions of those who have ACTUALLY lived this way.

    As for being a prisoner in a bed, I don't believe in Terri's case, that this had to be the case. She really deserved the rights that Florida Law demanded for her- that is therapy, etc.

    By Blogger Straight Up with Sherri, at 11:26 AM  

  • Sherri --
    Euthanasia was once considered humane to the terminally ill that were in pain. (I have to admit, as much as I hate the idea, this is where I have no good answers. ...)

    Pope John Paul II gives us a very good answer to this question. He says that pain is a necessary part of life and that pain at the time of death is a gift from God.
    I have personally believed this for many years. All character is built from the bad times. Good fortune and happiness have never built good character. All great art is born of pain: paintings, sculpture, music, poetry, novels, etc. We find the finest examples created by those with the most angst.
    What part of the history of the holocaust do you not understand? The T-4 program? The institutionalized control of government into one branch with absolute authority? In Germany, it was executive; in the United States, it is judicial. The right of the people to redress being stomped?

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