Willing to Die

I hope Terri Schiavo dies soon. Not that I have anything against Schiavo or her family. Quite the opposite. I ache for them. I cannot imagine any hell worse than living for 15 years in a "permanent vegetative state" while relatives and courts battle over whether to continue to keep me in some grim, pathetic imitation of life.

This is why I have a living will. I also have somebody who has my medical power of attorney. Had Schiavo taken either of these steps prior to her heart attack at age 26, she would not be in her state of suspended animation today. She would not be a turnip that twitches, giving false hope to parents who should, by this point, know better.

If we are to believe Terri's husband—and it's certainly a common enough sentiment to be entirely believable—Schiavo never wanted to be kept alive under these circumstances. That wish should be the only opinion that counts here.

I have a direct, visceral response to this issue because of my own chronic health problems. Three times in past years, I have fallen into comas. The first was when I was 17 and in a strange city; it was days before doctors figured out that I wasn't a teenager OD'd on drugs but that I had an actual medical problem. That condition worsened and landed me back in a coma again, twice, at age 33. The experiences were actually a lot less traumatic for me than for the people around me—heck, I slept through the whole thing. The people at my bedside 24 hours a day didn't.

I have also had a stroke, at age 38, and count as the most terrifying experience of my life the inability while awake and lucid to make my body do what my brain wanted it to: impaired speaking, impaired movement. My body just couldn't work. It was a very mild version of what Schiavo faces. I never want to live through that again.

I cannot imagine being in situations like that and having medical decisions taken out of the hands of my doctors and my loved ones. I certainly can't imagine becoming a cause célèbre for a bunch of opportunistic pols and religious wackos.

Terri Schiavo is not in a coma; she is awake but so brain-damaged as to not be sentient. She should be put out of her misery, left to die in dignity, in privacy with her family.

Instead, her ailment, an extreme version of what millions of families face each year, has been transformed into a grotesque political and media circus. I can imagine few political gambits more flat-out offensive than Congress and President Bush taking this family's personal tragedy and turning it into a cynical ploy for political brownie points among religious conservatives.

I have a suspicion, however, that there's also a backlash afoot—a backlash that transcends political ideology or religious belief. Too many people have had to face this situation, like me, through an illness of their own, or a loved one, a child, an aging parent. Too many people have had to ask themselves, "What if . . . ?" Too many people wouldn't want to continue with the sort of quality of life that Terri Schiavo has endured for 15 years.

We can only hope that both before and after her feeding tube was removed, Schiavo was too insensate to be suffering. If she has been suffering, lo these long years as her parents have dragged out the legal and legislative battle to keep her alive, the strangers who have colluded in her ongoing sort-of survival deserve heaps of opprobrium. This means you, Jeb Bush. Tom DeLay. Bill Frist.

The medical decision to pull the plug is a decision nobody should ever have to face. However, as boomers age and medicine advances, we will be able to keep more and more people alive on machines, with no hope of recovery.

For them, for us, the Schiavo case serves as a precedent, an ugly precedent whereby politicians and religious zealots can try to override the private medical decisions of a perfect stranger. This should be, and is, terrifying.

There's an easy way to avoid it: Sign a living will.

And then don't elect politicians who would exploit a private tragedy for professional gain.

And pray that Terri Schiavo dies peacefully, and soon.


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