Friday, May 06, 2005

What is dehydration like?

In Our Sunday Visitor, Dr. Brian Donnelly describes the truth about death by dehydration and starvation:

Starvation: Don't try this at home

In the last week of Terri Schiavo's life, while she was being starved to death, a newspaper article was published, first in the Los Angeles Times, then elsewhere, that discussed the "upside" of starvation. "Starvation isn't such a painful death" read the title. The subtitle in the newspaper here in Pittsburgh, PA, read "Medical experts say it typically brings on euphoric feelings." One physician was quoted as saying that his patients have told him that "there's nothing unpleasant about it -- in fact, it can be quite blissful and euphoric. It's a very smooth, graceful and elegant way to go." Hmmm. Perhaps those emaciated people we saw depicted in the concentration camps in the movie "Schindler's List" were, in fact, "blissful and euphoric"? Did Terri Schiavo really look "graceful and elegant" before she died?

It is impossible to know how many people will actually believe, from this article, that starvation is desirable. I know that my children, after a long afternoon of playing, wouldn't let me slip that one past them for very long. Would this be a reason for Americans to fail to donate to food banks, or to Catholic Relief Services, or to other organizations that feed the hungry? Or, as someone has sardonically suggested, will this be the ultimate solution to the impending Social Security problem?

Being starved of food and water will, over time, lead the body to break down its own energy stores. In the course of breaking down fat stores, free fatty acids and ketones are released. These substances can alter one's state of mind, as long distance runners can verify. This is part of the chemical explanation for what some have termed the "runner's high." But, to be clear, running a marathon under your own power is vastly different than being deprived of food and water against your will.

Suffering is certainly involved when one is starving to death. The article quoted doctors who deal with terminally ill patients. The testimony of one woman in particular, who kept a journal while she was dying of cancer, formed the basis for some of these opinions. But, as anyone who has been reading OSV would know, this testimony was taken out of context. For some cancer patients, who may well get nauseated at the very thought of food, starvation frees them from that particular symptom. In this context, starvation earns the praise it receives as detailed in the LA Times article.

A better medical analogy is frostbite. When tissue is damaged from prolonged exposure to the cold, the involved area hurts. After a while, as the circulation becomes more compromised, the area feels numb. The pain is gone. From that point, if the tissues can be rescued from the cold, and circulation can be restored, pain will again be generated as the frozen tissue begins to heal. This pain is usually much worse than the pre-numbness pain. If the numbed tissues cannot be rescued from the cold, tissue death, or necrosis, will follow. Gangrene and subsequent loss of the damaged tissue come next.

Of course, Terri Schiavo was not suffering from a terminal illness. Her problem was that her legal guardian/erstwhile husband wanted her dead, and the legal system allowed the deliberate termination of her life (or, as Father Frank Pavone succinctly, and courageously, put it: her murder) to happen.

We, as Catholics, know starvation cannot be desirable. Why else did Jesus tell us to pray to the Almighty using the words "Give us this day our daily bread"? Why else did he tell his disciples, the leaders of the first Church, to "feed my sheep"?

The bigger danger, it would seem, is that other, more "humane" means will be used in the future to terminate those whose lives are deemed, as was Mrs. Schaivo's, to be not worth living. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a "protocol" used by a physician in the Netherlands for euthanizing newborn babies who have been judged too ill to live. And a New York Times article wrote glowingly of the Dutch pediatrician's efforts to end the babies' unbearable and incurable suffering." The slippery slope is now a slalom, complete with mass media chair lift, for those doctors who have been educated beyond their wisdom.

We can refer to the way the late, great Pope John Paul II eloquently expressed it in Evangelium Vitae : " 'Causing death' can never be considered a form of medical treatment, even when the intention is solely to comply with the patient's request." And : "Even when not motivated by a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed, a 'perversion' of mercy. True 'compassion' leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."
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