Having a living will is the patient’s duty
I miss my mother. Around this time of the year four years ago, my mother passed away. She did not leave me, but I let her go. It was me who made the decision to stop mechanical ventilation and nutritional support.
A few days ago, I read an article in the JoongAng Ilbo titled, “Refusing Life Support, Living with a Dozen Tubes.” My mother suffered from weak health. My father passed away first, and she lived by herself for 30 years. One day when she was 76, she had difficulty breathing, went to the emergency room and was admitted to the hospital.
She suffered for seven months, but one thing was hard to understand. The doctor had said that all her organs were so weak and there was a slim chance of recovery. But he suspected pancreatic cancer, and a thorough examination would be necessary. When I asked whether the cancer, if diagnosed, could be treated, he said it was not likely. He added that it was the duty of the hospital to continue treatment until the end, whether or not a complete recovery was possible.
I wasn’t sure what the point was, but I couldn’t refuse the examination. The exam result showed that it was not cancer, but the exams must have exhausted her. In the end, she was moved to the intensive care unit. Some time later, we had to decide whether to continue the “meaningless life support” of mechanical ventilation and feeding tubes.
When I asked the doctor what he would do with his mother, he said, “There is no hope, so I would let her go in peace.” My doctor friend felt the same. She said my mother would not be the same in a vegetative state.
I responded, “Some wake up from a coma years later.” But that is a case for patients who are otherwise healthy. My mother was so old and weak that there was very little chance. My brother wanted to keep the life support as long as we could, and I was not sure about it. After discussing it with family members for a few days, we decided to let her go.
I heard that hearing is the last of senses to go. So I whispered in her ear, “Mom, thank you for putting up with the pain. Now, you can go. Please go first and wait for me.”
That’s how my mother left, and I often wonder if we made the right choice. If we had continued the life support, I would be able to visit my mother in a vegetative state in a hospital bed on a day like today, when I desperately miss her. The probability for recovery was near zero, the doctor said. Near zero is not zero, but her liver, and large and small intestines were failing.
How can you say “meaningless life support”? No treatment is meaningless for the family. An advance medical directive is a heavy burden for loved ones. It would be best for the patient to prepare one.
* The author is a guest columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Eom Eul-soon