In my half-century of life this is the second time I’m living through the acceptance and practice of euthanasia. As a child growing up in Poland during the Nazi occupation (alternately with the Russian occupation) I remember that most our difficult job was keeping Grandpa from being shot by the Nazis. By Nazi standards Grandpas life was already devoid of value: he was close to 70, had a stopping posture, and on his left temple he had skin cancer which sometimes erupted into an oozing ulcer.
When we knew that the Nazi soldiers were approaching our village we always hid Grandpa in the hay or in some dirty corner of the barn. Their duty was to determine a person’s usefulness- whether he was a productive member of society and not a burden to it. The mentally slow, incomplete and physically disabled quickly disappeared from our midst.
Grandpa tried o keep his wits about him. When he was being judged, his movements became spry and his turns such that the cancerous side of his face was away from the onlookers. When an individual soldier queried him we often got the feeling that the soldier felt uneasy about carrying out his “duty”. Perhaps his feelings for a grandparent back home were stronger than his loyalty to Nazi ideals. It was most dangerous to be interrogated by two or more soldiers together. If one decided for death the others would be afraid to disagree. This would be a betrayal of loyalty to duty.
To me Grandpa was not useless – he was my Guardian Angel! He helped deliver me at birth, tied my umbilical cord, and nurtured and protected me. He would hide his last piece of bread under his shirt for me. We went into swamps together to catch eels with our bare hands, and into the woods to gather mushrooms and berries. Twice our village was burned down and we lived like nomads on hand outs from other farmers.
Grandfather said that he did not care about his own life because he was old but felt it his responsibility to help my mother, brother, and me live through the war so we could be reunited with my Father (his son) in America. In 1947, when we had our trip to the U.S all arranged, Grandpa died.
My Father, who hadn’t seen us for nine years, turned out to be just as loving as Grandpa.
Dad is now in advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. Fortunately he is not subject to forced euthanasia but “choices” which come dangerously close to having the same ends. He is under the care of the Veterans Administration hospital so we do not choose his doctors. It is not soldiers who decide whether he lives or dies; his doctors and I decide that.
Last June he fell and fractured his hip bone. After surgery- which I chose to have done- he suffered bouts of pneumonia. He could no longer swallow well and kept aspirating food into his lungs which caused infections.
I was summoned to a conference with several doctors and social worker and presented with this choice: either put a G tube into his stomach through which he can be fed pureed foods, thus by-passing the mouth and risking lung infections; or, we can continue “ the less aggressive treatment” as we have been doing.
After much input from the doctors about Dads low quality of life, and the sufficiency of my past efforts in his care, and the fact that it would be impossible for him to go home with me again. I said: You mean, if I refuse the G tube Dad will be allowed to die from starvation or pneumonia, whichever gets him first. That’s correct, the replied. I opted for the tube.
A few days later, dad’s doctor, with a nurse as a witness, asked me for the record, what I want them to do in case Dad is dying. I told them that if his heart stops, I do not want them pounding on his chest, or splitting it open, to restart the heart (my TV medical knowledge!) but that, of course , I want them to treat him for anything that is treatable, and to help him if he’s choking. Oh, of course, they said. And, well, then, it’s Do Not Resuscitate.
This left me feeling very uneasy, I had given them the OK for not using extraordinary means to prolong his life if he were dying; but how could I be sure that they would continue giving him the best means to continue living?
I still can’t believe that I have this power over life and death of another person. Surely, there must be standard procedures based on ethical practices governing medical care. I lack medical knowledge to request treatment which the doctors might have but not use if they choose that the patient is better off dead. And who makes decisions for persons who are childless? What if the child decides that his parent should not be treated at all- do the doctors go along with it? Judging by my experience, and the newspaper accounts of such cases, the answer is yes. Isn’t this, in fact, already euthanasia –accepted and practiced?
I am happy to report that the nourishment my Dad received through the G tube helped him gain weight and strength and over come the pneumonia. He does not walk and is a “total care patient”. The doctor and the social worker had tried to persuade me to place him in a nursing home but I decided to take him home to see if he’d improve. In the six weeks he’s been home he’s become physically stronger and mentally more alert.
Last week we celebrated Dad’s 75th birthday. He did not understand the occasion but seemed to enjoy the attention.
When people hear about Dad’s condition they often ask: But what kind of a life is that? I reply: What would you do- kill him? He is alive and we’re trying to make the best possible life fro him and for us.
If I had decided against treating him, he would certainly be dead by now. So the real question is: What kind of life would I be having now, knowing that I had chosen his death? I know several adult children who suffer terrible guilt for much lesser “crimes- simple neglect of their aged parents. If I love, not guilt motivated me we’d all try a little harder.
This article fist appeared in the November 1986 Life Report. Mary Dreger and her family live in suburban New York, She recently wrote, ”my dad is doing well. He’s gained weight and all those symptoms associated with starvation (skin breakdown, sores in mouth, etc) have long disappeared”.