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Patient rights trump providers'

| June 24, 2010 9:00 PM

Human beings have a disturbing tendency to want to control one another. Perhaps it's a form of insecurity - the idea that somehow if we can make others do or be or think the same way as ourselves, or the way we want them to, it somehow bolsters a positive self-image.

Most often in blissful ignorance, we hide these efforts behind the notions that we are altruistically protecting others from themselves; that we know better, that we are smarter or somehow more enlightened.

In truth if we reflect honestly and long enough, we find we are more likely being selfish, even when we intend the opposite. Imposing our own fears, feelings, beliefs, and desires upon others in the depths beneath the caring.

It's human nature; although it's also something we can push beyond and occasionally, do. At no time is this more poignantly difficult than the end of life.

No one likes death and few welcome it, even in cases of advanced age and painful, terminal disease. Survival instincts and often, guilt, tell us to prolong life by every second possible. Compassion, however, may change the picture. Does one person have the right to force prolonging upon another, assuming that person is mentally healthy, has considered and weighed all sides, and is dying anyway?

I do not advocate suicide, but neither do I advocate imposing our own fears of death and sense of loss upon others, by taking away what dignity and control a person has left of a physically failing life. I may disagree, but if I imagine not myself in his shoes, but himself in his shoes - feeling what he feels from his perspective - I can better understand his decision. This is the essence of compassion.

At the very least I can respect another's right to make the choice.

The recent legislation allowing certain care providers to refuse otherwise legally permissible treatment (or withholding of such treatment) illustrates this complicated picture. Yes, people occasionally recover even when chances are slim to almost none. Happily some want to take that chance. Others don't at first, due to shock and depression, but later change their minds. That's why a little time and professional advice both mental and medical are important for end-of-life decisions.

Sometimes even after such time and consultation, the decision is not to try to prolong. Yes, treatment may buy an additional day, week, month or even a year. No, refusing a feeding tube does not equate to lack of love. No, it is not my right to force someone of advanced age or in final stages of a difficult terminal disease into treatments that make living miserable. That life isn't mine to control.

Certainly we must respect each other's beliefs, religious or otherwise, and also the lack thereof. That includes health care providers, who hopefully consider the care they may be asked by competent adults to (or not to) provide before choosing to work in their field. At KMC and according to their statements, enough providers are on hand so the rights need not conflict. However, that's not necessarily true for in-home care, smaller facilities, and other settings.

We have the right to opposing beliefs. However when belief interferes with another's right, the line is crossed. A law that breaches that right (to health care decisions) in favor of another's belief should be changed, lest it frustrate what could be a peaceful and healing process for an entire family by removing choices from the dying.

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Sholehjo@hotmail.com

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