I AM IN CHARGE

There is nothing in the world to which every man
Has a more unassailable title than to his own life.
Arthur Schopenhauer

My friend Helen Osterman was 86 years old when her husband died.  “Now, it’s my turn,” she told me.  “I cannot wait to join him.”

I was 28 when she told me that and I was appalled.  I could not imagine anyone wanting to die.  The urge to live is so strong in us all, I could not believe that someone who was in good health would choose to end it all.  Besides, I did not believe you went anywhere when you were dead.  I thought it was a final finish.

I know now that what you believe is what will happen.  It makes no difference that we cannot prove that we will come back in another form after we leave this earth.  It is immaterial that there is no evidence that our spirits will ascend to a heaven that is described in different terms by different faiths.  It is what you think is true that matters.  Helen Osterman was sure she would see her husband again when she died and she did go to join him just six months after he left her.  She was finished with her life.

I have lived almost 60 years since that day and I have a very different perspective now.  I have seen people tied to tubes and bottles, their brain barely functioning, who have become nothing but blobs of living flesh.  I have heard tales of people riddled with agonizing pain who cannot be relieved of their suffering because it is against the law for a doctor to assist a patient to end his life.  And I know now that those people did not make proper arrangements for their finish.  They did not specify that they did not want to suffer without respite.  They did not insist that they not be kept alive by artificial means.

We are the only ones who have the right to make a decision about our body.  It is the one thing that belongs only to us and it is our duty to determine the way we care for it and when it is time to stop its functioning.  It is not a decision for a doctor or a relative to make.

However, once we make our wishes known it is incumbent upon all who know us to follow our wishes.  I remember a man who was in a coma whose wife insisted he be fed intravenously and on monitoring machines to keep him breathing.  She sat by his side all day into the night holding his hand but he did not know she was there.  He had made his living will.  He had trusted her to abide by his wishes but she couldn’t bear to let him go.  She insisted that keeping her husband alive was an act of love.  I think she committed an unforgiveable crime.

There are times when a physician finds himself caring for a person who has stopped functioning.  I cannot believe he has committed a crime when he simply removes all life support systems and lets his patient expire.

It seems to me that governments have taken over the responsibility for our well-being.  They pass laws to protect us from abuse, from accidents on the road and from habits they have decided will kill us.  Legislators have forgotten that we are unique individuals and it is the responsibility of each of us to listen to his body and keep it in running order.  It is for every person to decide if he wants a particular treatment to cure a diagnoses.  A diagnoses is after all only one person’s opinion.  The amount of cigarettes we smoke, the quantity of drugs we put into our systems and the type of exercise we care to do is a personal decision.  We own ourselves. No one else does.

Just as we all cherish the right to live our lives in our own way, we also have a right to decide when we are finished.  When life gives us no satisfaction…when we are stalled and are repeating the same routine every day, it is time to say goodbye to this life.  Once we make that decision, it must be respected.  The trick is to make that judgment when you still can think and to be sure that it is evident.

I have always loved the story of the woman who had DO NOT RESUSITATE tattooed on her chest and on her back, TURN ME OVER.  That is my kind of gal.