Gallery D

Facing The Inevitable

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Can There Be Death Without Pain?

By James Donahue

Death is something we all must face. It is something we don’t like to think about, and we rationalize away the thing we fear the most . . . having to suffer extreme pain while getting from the state of being alive to being dead.

When I was young and in the prime of life, the mere thought of having to someday experience the pain and agony of dying was frightening. Sometimes I would experience going into a cold sweat just thinking about having to face it. But as I have aged, and parts of my body have started breaking down, the thought of dying doesn’t seem quite so bad. That’s because I experience some degree of pain daily and I know there are strong pain killers available that allow doctors and hospice care workers to ease dying patients through the death process.

My loving wife Doris died quite suddenly one year ago of pancreatic cancer. She didn’t know the cancer was killing her until the final days because there are no nerves in the pancreas to sound an alarm that anything is wrong. It was not until the cancer was spreading to the liver and other parts of her body that she complained of a pain in her side. When her cancer was discovered it was so advanced that the doctors said she probably had only another week to live. It was an incredible shock for her and for her family.

We took the doctor’s advice and set up a hospice care program immediately. The nurses were skilled at their job. They brought a special hospital bed and other medical equipment into the home, and immediately began dosing Doris with strong opiate drugs like morphine. As the pain intensified, so did the drugs. Consequently, I watched my wife of 51 years gently ease into her death. I can’t say she died peacefully, but she went out as gracefully as possible, with her family by her side.

My mother went out the hard way. She was suffering from a heart condition and emphysema. Consequently, she was constantly struggling to get her breath. When she began to die, the family admitted her to a hospital where she was hooked up to all kinds of pipes, hoses and devices designed to keep her heart pumping and her lungs filled with oxygen. Thus they prolonged her death. She suffered needlessly until the inevitable occurred. My last vision of her was that of a frightened dying woman. There was little I could do to comfort her.

I know what she went through. Some years ago I was suffering from an allergic reaction to wood smoke when we were heating our home with wood. The asthma medicine the doctor gave me attacked the wall of my stomach and soon I had a bleeding ulcer. One day I began throwing up blood and almost bled to death. The doctor and nurses had me hooked up to all those pipes and hoses. It was pure torture and I was in agony. I received six pints of blood before it was over. I learned from that experience that I did not want to die in a hospital. The only reason I accepted what was happening to me then was because there was a chance that I might still survive, which proved true.

In my years working as a newspaper reporter, and frequently covering the police beat, I was a frequent observer of the dead and dying. And I know from personal experience that when someone dies suddenly in a traffic or machine accident, it is probably a painless death. I was in a severe automobile crash when I was in my late teens. I have no recollection of the accident. One minute I was driving the car. The next thing I knew I was lying on the pavement, the wheel of the vehicle on my right shoulder and a gang of men working to lift it off of me. I suffered a skull fracture and concussion that almost killed me in that wreck. There was no pain experienced until later.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian is remembered for practicing euthanasia among terminally ill patients. He not only championed a terminal patient’s right to die by a doctor assisted suicide, but he experimented with ways of making the death a peaceful and painless experience. While he was operating there was some comfort in knowing that at least one practicing medical doctor was available to help ease us out if we find ourselves suffering from a terminal illness that was leading us to a slow and agonizing death.

But in 1999 Dr. Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder in a voluntary euthanasia case. He served eight years in a Michigan prison then was released to die a slow death of his own from liver cancer in 2011. His lawyer says his death was painless, although he died in a hospital.

How foolish we are. We killed a medical man who wanted to legalize a painless way for the terminally ill to pass into death. Because of religious generated morality, we have put laws on the books that force us to accept the pain of death. In fact, most doctors are afraid to prescribe good pain medication because of strict laws prohibiting its use.

While I am in constant pain from arthritic legs and hips, my insurance carrier only permits me to have about six pills a day that contain a little hydrocodone mixed with mostly acetaminophen. The heavy doses of acetaminophen attack the liver, so the medicine may be killing me.