Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner —
I have been following with interest the story of Desmond Watson, an 87-year-old who has advanced dementia and has been in the hospital in Canada for 14 months. He was admitted to the hospital in January 2010 with pneumonia. His wife of 69 years told doctors that he would want to keep living as long as possible. As a Roman Catholic, she says that he “would have wanted to be given every chance at life despite any suffering he may be enduring.”
“Desmond is suffering without any prospect of long-term improvement,” said one of Mr. Watson’s doctors. This doctor is quoted as saying: “Prolonging life and living are two totally different things … being kept alive in this way, I can’t imagine anybody would wish this … Mrs. Watson is entitled to her opinion but we need to be satisfied for ourselves that we’re doing the right thing … (We’re) not satisfied.”
In Ontario, they have a Consent and Capacity Board (CCB) that reviews cases like Mr. Watson’s. (“The CCB’s mission is the fair and accessible adjudication of consent and capacity issues, balancing the rights of vulnerable individuals with public safety.”) The CCB ruled that because Mrs. Watson (and her two daughters) expressed what she said were her husband’s beliefs, the hospital is required to continue treatment. Unfortunately, none of those caring for Mr. Watson ever asked him what his beliefs and values were even though the Consent and Capacity Board weighs the patients’ beliefs and values in their decisions.
Some of the questions that families have struggled with in situations such as this are: What is “living”? And is this a quality of life that would be acceptable to the patient? As the hospital’s doctor said, “prolonging life and living are two totally different things.”
I mentioned in my last posting that we need to determine for ourselves what our “bottom line” is. The question becomes: When is enough, enough?
And while money should not play a part in the decisions people make, we should at least be aware of the costs to our health system. For example, “Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly, spends nearly 30 percent of its budget on beneficiaries in their final year of life. Slightly more than half of Medicare dollars are spent on patients who die within two months. Forty percent of Medicare dollars cover care for people in the last month.” This is amazing considering that when asked, most people say that they would prefer to die at home and not in a hospital. And yet, 56 percent die in a hospital and 19 percent in nursing homes. (Read more.)
What is more important to you: quality of life or quantity of life? And where do your religious beliefs come into this consideration?
Rev. Jacobs presents a story about a religious Catholic family that has a deep belief which is being questioned by the medical establishment, thus setting up an argument about whether their belief is antithetical to good medical care. Unfortunately, we live in a society today which is beginning to downgrade patient autonomy, even with the increased advocacy for advanced directives and living wills.
If we examine the story closely, we will also see something else which is ethically challenging. The doctor seems to be weighing his sense of non-maleficence, his desire not to do harm, to be greater than the autonomy of the husband and his health care advocate, his wife. This is challenging because we want our doctors to act in our best interests as we perceive them to be (which is influenced by our culture, ethnicity and religious beliefs). A doctor should be comfortable enough to know when the right thing to do is to step away when morally and ethically opposed to a form of treatment or non-treatment, but the doctor must also recognize the patient’s autonomy.
As a chaplain, the role in such a situation would begin by investigating with the family the source of their wishes. Often, this might entail speaking with their clergy in addition to the health care proxy. By ascertaining the specifics of their wishes and what is driving their wishes, a chaplain will be better able to provide clarity for all those involved, as in the patient/family and the doctor. I have often found that many requests start of a place of emotional denial rather than from a place of religious and moral conviction. This is not to say a person can’t be both in denial and yet feel very strongly about their spiritual and religious beliefs. Rather, often times the family is struggling with the fundamental challenge of losing a loved one and are looking for something to grasp onto.
To deal with Rev. Jacob’s question of quality vs. quantity and how religious beliefs would play a role in that discussion, I would say both are important ideally. The question of quality vs. quantity of life is completely predicated on religious belief. If we believe the human being to be a sacred being, both in mind and in body, then we encounter a true paradox. For most of us, the thought of living without being able to interact as we do during our formative years is frightening. Yet, even for those who believe in life after death, there is a base fear of life ending prematurely, no matter how old one gets. Every religion struggles with this question. There is no right answer to this question, and again, one’s beliefs will be influenced by one’s cultural, spiritual and ethnic background.