Life And Death: Who Can Decide?

Terri Schiavo suffered a cardiac arrest in 1990. Her brain was deprived of oxygen and she lapsed into a “persistent vegetative state.” That was fourteen years ago. Let her live or let her die? Who has the right to decide on Terri Schiavo’s fate? While this is being debated, Terri’s life hangs on the line. The tube that had allowed her to be fed was removed last Friday. She is not allowed to be nourished or hydrated. Dying by starvation and dehydration is a painfully slow process. It will take anything from two to four weeks for Terri to die.

One can only speculate why, after being awarded more than US$1 million in a malpractice suit that provided for Terri’s lifetime care, her husband, Michael Schiavo, is unrelenting in his pursuit to end her life. According to Michael, on several occasions before her cardiac arrest, Terri had indicated to him that she would not want to continue living should she be in a condition she currently is in. It was exposed that this was not revealed by Michael during the malpractice proceedings.

Terri’s case brought memories of another painful episode of Mum’s last few days to the fore. When she lapsed into a coma and could not be fed or take her medicine orally, I decided not to send her back to the hospital. I believe that was her wish and I was determined to fulfil it.

“If I die, I want to die at home,” she had pleaded to me at the hospital. “Please take me home.”

My decision was based on those words. To take her back to the hospital and get a feeding tube or an intravenous drip inserted would have prolonged her life, for how long I do not know. But that was not what she had wanted. I stopped feeding her and stopped her medication. What was I supposed to do when she was no longer responsive to all stimuli short of sending her back to the hospital?

Friends that I consulted had their reservations regarding my decision. I could sense from the hesitation in their voice. However, they advised me to hydrate Mum, or at the very least keep her lips wet. Following their advice, Mum’s lips were kept moist with a cotton ball every half hour.

When Peter came, he insisted that I feed Mum. He could not bear the thought of Mum going hungry. He crushed the tablets and mixed it with honey and fed Mum, bit by bit. She had problems swallowing. It was also a slow process because the medicine tasted awful even with the honey.

In a way, I am glad that Peter was adamant that Mum be fed. It was my mistake in not persisting to feed her. I made the decision to stop because the milk that was fed to her all dribbled out from the corner of her mouth. Eventually Mum learned to swallow. However, all oral medication was discontinued. The only medicine administered was rectal suppositories for her persistent fever.

That all happened within a frame of two days. I have no guilt in not sending Mum back to the hospital. I truly believe that was what she had wanted. As her only son, it was my duty to comply with her last request. She wanted the dignity to die at home. She died at home, surrounded by loved ones. I truly believe that was what she had wanted.

Decisions like these can be very painful and difficult to make. On one hand, we cannot bear to see our loved one’s suffering prolonged but on the other to let them go is one thing that we are dreadfully reluctant to do. Ultimately, it all depends on what one’s spiritual beliefs are. Do we subscribe to a religion that disallows euthanasia? Do we believe that we are at liberty to decide on our own fate and that of other’s?

Terri is a Roman Catholic. So are her parents. The Roman Catholic Church is totally against any from of euthanasia. This should have been taken into account when the judge gave the order to remove the feeding tube. The other question is whether Michael Schiavo or Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, are in a better position to decide for Terri; and now whether the courts or the politicians can decide on that too. What has the worth of her life become when it can be decided by another human?

Last night, while we were talking about Terri’s plight, I asked Wuan, “What will you do if I am in a similar situation?”

“I don’t know,” was her terse reply. “What do you want?”

“My faith disallows euthanasia,” I continued, although I was acutely aware that she was getting uneasy.

“That is what we have to abide by then.”

I left it at that. She understood what should be done. My stand was clear. I did not want to pursue that issue with her any further.

Related entries:
Coming Home
The Right To Die?
A Caring Society Reacts
Managing Me

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.

10 thoughts on “Life And Death: Who Can Decide?”

  1. yes this is complicated.If one’s is in the vegitative state then I feel is ok to ends one’s life.( I would write out my will that way) It is more suffering for everyone to endure each and everyday looking at the love one’s who is suffering and can’t do anything to help.

  2. how will you know, thquah, that it is more suffering for everyone who has to take care of you in your vegetative state? if they are really your loved ones,they would want you alive even in vegetative state. at least that is my opinion. being vegetative is only somewhat similiar as being disabled… the person is still alive.

    peter, your cousin peter was very right to be adamant that you should feed your mum. that’s the way it should be. no matter in what state a person is, s/he should be fed… just like all of us, we eat (fed) to live.

    peter, i have told you before about my uncle who is a priest, remember? (your ex parish priest). it seems that he and terri are in the same condition, except he’s only 5 years presently while terri is 15 years already. you can read more what i say on this topic in my blog.

  3. Peter, the decision you made was a bold and correct one at that time. No one “dies” before their time. When the soul is ready to release the body, when it has accomplished what it came here to do, it moves on. There is always a reason. To realize that each soul is making its decisions is a beautiful, healing and freeing experience.

    What is nagging you now is that how do you know if you are approaching such decisions in clarity, dignity and integrity? This is YOUR individual decision.

    Ask one another, connect with God within your heart, and you will know.

  4. I saw my mum suffer much before she died. I wanted more days with her but also could feel her agony of pain and helplessness. In her last days, she was hardly conscious but could still feel pain even at the slightest movement. Reality is, she was waiting to die and we all knew she was going to die. My dad said he wished she would ‘go’ faster so that her suffering would end. Does it mean my dad loved her any less? I don’t think so. While my faith does not allow euthanasia, it seems so cruel to see a loved one suffer endlessly and all we can do is just watch and pray. Whatever you did, you knew best. And I am sure your mum too. Sometimes it’s easy to pass judgement when we are not in the shoes of those who are going through it. Again, I think if we walk close to God, we will know what to do when the situation requires it.

  5. Peter,its very brave of you. I would have done the same if its my parents wish. I don’t see a reason why I need to prolong a person’s life is it means suffering for both party.

  6. Peter, my first thought when I read that you stopped feeding your mum was ‘Oh NO!’

    But I agree with Bkworm, that I have no right to feel that way since I wasn’t the one who have gone through what you had. How can I truly understand your pain & suffering in watching your mum wither away? Seeing that she cannot even swallow the milk you fed her. I really don’t know.

    But as in caring for people who are in coma, I suppose most of them (the carers) don’t believe in euthanasia b’cos they are still hopeful. That their loved one will be conscious soon.

  7. Hi Peter,

    It is disheartening to see that our sinful nature has been reduced to such a state without absolute, correct principles to stand by. When we wear the spectacles of moral relativism, everything starts to entropy. From the court deciding who survives or not, it brings us back to the issue of murder – in the form of abortion. All “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates are crippled when they take that stand, because they have just subjected themselves to moral relativism. Once a person’s morals, principles and ethics are relative with no absolute truth to lean upon, he or she must never complain for the rest of his/her life whenever slighted or treated unfairly. Dish out relativism, graciously receive it without any ruffled feathers.

    One can draw parallels with the Holocaust when the Germans decided that more than 6 million people do not deserve the right to live. Put oneself in the executed’s shoes. The long trudge out of Treblinka on a cold, winter night. Using soap made out of your relatives’ recycled body parts. Feel free to imagine and explore.

    To simplify matters using Occam’s Razor, if Terri really did mention that she preferred not to be on life-support in a persistant vegetative state while she was alive, does that mean we shed our obligation and responsibility in doing the right thing?

    What this world needs is absolute truth without the pretentiousness and self-serving attitude of relativists.

    For starters, open up the Bible 🙂 Have a nice day!

  8. Dear All,
    Thank you for your comments. I shall not reply to each individually since there will be overlapping points that will be raised.

    Having embraced Christianity, all I can say is that only God can decide on my life and death and when I have to go. Even then there is a thin line between doing what is acceptable and what is not. Should I slip into a persistent vegetative state, my carer will have to consult a priest on the correct response to the situation according to the teachings of our faith.

    Truthfully, I cannot say what I would have done had Mum survived longer than the two days that she was in a coma. I do not want to speculate on that either because I was not educated in the ways of the Roman Catholic Church yet at that material time.

    I cannot speak for the pro-choicers and those who do not believe in the sanctity of life and those whose religion does not expressly forbid euthanasia. Thay may have different views. I do not want to touch on that either because the argument will not come to an acceptable conclusion.

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