[Viewpoint] Death with dignity is essential

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[Viewpoint] Death with dignity is essential

While I was seeing my doctor at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital on Oct. 8, I was hearing people’s deep groaning with the news of the suicide of TV celebrity and author Choi Yoon-hee, known as the “Happiness Evangelist.” Patients who were waiting their turn seemed to be very anxious to hear such sad news on the TV.

The tragic news must have shocked those who suffer from cancer or incurable diseases. I witnessed a similar scene at the National Cancer Center five years ago when a popular Korean female singer died from terminal cancer. All the nurses at the cancer ward of the National Cancer Center were running around the ward to urge people to turn off the TV.

The singer was an idol to cancer patients because she was busy doing TV activities despite her disease. The nurses at the hospital worried that their patients would be demoralized by the singer’s death. Such unexpected tragic news often causes disturbances on hospice wards.

Death, whether it is suicide or natural, causes indescribable reactions. Tragic suicides tend to be demoralizing because they feel such sorrow. It is a social loss that cannot be measured, such as when President Roh Moo-hyun and other TV celebrities ended their own lives.

When leaders in our society end their own lives, it doesn’t seem to be in line with our national dignity. Current circumstances are abnormal when people tend to ignore the importance of the sanctity of life even though we have been emphasizing it all along. People face their mortality in relation to their life experiences. Therefore, death itself is a part of their lives.

Larger cancer clinics are being built every year. Such trends seem as if they are a symbol of Korea’s medical sector development. However, terminal cancer patients are being isolated from other medical patients with nonfatal diseases in such overwhelmingly big hospitals.

There is no place for those who suffer from incurable diseases to relieve their pain. Choi Yoon-hee wrote in her suicide note that she has been suffering from more than 700 pains. Families, who take care of those who suffer from such pain, must suffer from more than 700 sorrows.

This is not all. There are many deaths in which medical doctors can’t figure out how their pains have been caused. It is rather shocking to know. This is because medical doctors tend to concentrate more on curing their patients.

Some terminal cancer patients submit letters of intent for palliative care to their doctors or hospices, but their letters are turned down with criticism because the doctors do not understand the concept of death with dignity.

Such things occur at major university hospitals in Seoul. Terminal cancer patients in Korea look for doctors who can cure or relieve their pain. It is a rather painful, arduous march, and they often think of suicide. There are more terminal cancer patients who take anti-cancer drugs until their lives end. Their pains are extremely serious.

There aren’t many medical doctors who recommend palliative care to cancer patients. They are afraid of causing any misunderstanding between “meaningful life and death” and of causing miscommunication between patients and their families.

Cancer patients are now allowed to choose palliative care after the National Assembly passed the revision of the Cancer Management Act in April. The term “hospice” was removed from “hospice-palliative care” in the revision of the act because the term hospice may indicate death.

However, this has caused some criticism from those who see it as a poor change. People face the possibility of death every day.

But some people end their lives by committing suicide because they are too feeble. The sanctity of life, which has been insisted by every social group, is obsessed about life only. It is absolutely necessary for the sanctity of life to include the dignity of death - it is part of life. We need to open our eyes wider so that we can introduce a training program on “life and death” beginning from youth like advanced countries do.

If you want to know why Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, has remained eager about work despite undergoing cancer treatment, you should see his congratulatory speech at a Stanford University graduation ceremony in 2005. A third of his speech was about death. His viewpoint on life and death, which he has learned from his experience facing his mortality, was very touching. Please check out YouTube for his speech.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a columnist.

By Choi Chul-joo
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