I remember Catherine. She was in her 40s and was the first terminally ill cancer patient I cared for. Working full time as a 19-year-old nurse's aide on the 3 p.m. -11p.m. shift in 1973, keeping Catherine comfortable during her final days of life was a challenge. She had retained well over 100 pounds of fluid because her kidneys were shutting down. Unable to roll over or lift up on her own, the excess fluid literally seeped out of the pores of her skin, and her sheets and hospital gown needed a complete change every hour. The slightest move caused severe pain, yet she always tried to pull herself over in the bed, and thanked me every single time I cleaned and dried her.
She was one of the bravest people I have ever met, and I will never forget her. I arrived on duty after a day off, and her room was empty. She died while I was not there, and I cried. My boss sat with me in her office, and we talked about death and dying. This conversation became a pivotal moment in my decision to become a registered nurse.
Now 58 years old, I've witnessed many deaths and lost many relatives and friends. My mother was an Army nurse in the European Theater in World War ll. As a young child, I prayed she would never die. On the other hand, she would frequently say, "I hope when I die I go peacefully in my sleep." Perhaps after all the deaths she witnessed during war, I can't blame her for wanting it any other way. We are all going to die, yet it seems almost taboo to think or talk about the inevitable.
I read with great interest the Feb. 8 article, "New Jersey Assembly panel clears assisted-suicide bill," about the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee approving the proposed Death With Dignity Act (A3328/S2259). I heaved a sigh of relief personally and professionally. I know for a fact that anyone who has witnessed firsthand the horrendous pain and suffering of a terminally ill person would have to agree that allowing a capable person to make the decision to end his or her life in a humane and dignified way makes perfect sense.
A thoroughbred racehorse breaks his leg, and he is shot immediately. Perfectly healthy cats and dogs are put to death every day in this country because no one adopts them. Yet a terminally ill human being lingers, and each breath is an effort. Narcotic pain medication is administered in safe doses as to not suppress respirations, barely alleviating the pain. Emotionally, the patient and his loved ones feel helpless. The end is near, and sometimes we hold on to the old adage, "Where there is life, there's hope." We fool ourselves. The truth is too hard to face. Yet, when our loved one dies, we say they are finally at peace and suffer no more.
If approved by the full Legislature and signed by the governor, this bill would then be put to a popular vote. It covers all aspects of the terminally ill person who is capable of this voluntary and informed request. It even gives him a 15-day stretch of time between expressing a wish to die and the writing of the doctor's prescription for life-ending medications. The disease must lack a cure, be irreversible and likely to result in death in six months. Much thought went into the bill. It addresses providing counsel for the patients, encourages them to let loved ones know their decision, and provides legal protection for any person who is at the patient's bedside when he or she swallows the prescribed medications. I was very impressed with the details of this bill, and I support it 100 percent.
I am not pro death. I am for preventing people from suffering needlessly and for allowing them to fall asleep and die peacefully. It is time for the medical professionals in this country to use whatever resources are available to provide informed and educated choices for adult patients.
Citizen Columnist Joan Mahon, 58, has been a registered nurse for 37 years, specializing in psychiatric care and operating-room nursing. She lives in Villas.
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