My father’s death, and Alfie’s
My father was an extraordinarily fit 93-year-old when he went into the hospital for minor surgery. He was still working, still taking breaks to do push-ups on the floor of his office, still taking the stairs two at a time. But a painful ear infection would not respond to treatment, and as the infection moved deeper into the ear, his doctor advised an operation.
The surgery was successful, but then complications set in. A round of powerful antibiotics upset Dad's digestion. His kidneys rebelled. Too sick to exercise, he lay in bed, and developed pneumonia. As my friend Tom, a doctor, remarked: "Once the dominoes start to fall,…."
So it was that, about a week after what we had expected to be a routine hospital visit, I realized that my father was dying. When I said as much to one the attending physicians, he countered quickly, discouraging such thoughts. "There's nothing here that we can't treat," he assured me.
Later I realized that although the doctor was telling the truth, he was not responding to my concern. Yes, the hospital could treat Dad's problems. But could they fix them? The short answer is that they could not; the dominoes were falling too quickly. After many more adventures—a long stay in intensive care, intubation, a mysterious new lung ailment, another surgical procedure, and a massive stroke—we were summoned for the "family conference" that had probably been inevitable all along.
Dad had only a few more days to live, the doctors told us. We knew that already. We had no real complaints about the care he had received; we only wondered whether it had all been necessary. Hoping to reassure us, one friendly doctor remarked that my father would probably have succumbed to a stroke soon in any case. "Would you have preferred to have him keel over at home, working in the garden?" he asked. My sister and I looked at each other for a moment, then answered together: "Yes!"
Dad spent the last two weeks of his life in an unfamiliar place, attended mostly by strangers, sedated, floating in and out of consciousness. To his children it was obvious that he would have wanted to keep working, to be at home with our mother, to be active and conscious until the end. But to the doctors, somehow it seemed better for him to die in a hospital bed, in sterile surroundings, with his medical chart neatly filled out.
I thought again of the doctors' strange preference when I heard that the staff at Alder Hey hospital had explained that Alfie Evans could not be transferred to Bambino Gesu hospital, because the child might suffer a seizure and die during the flight to Rome. What difference would that have made? Yes, he might have died on the airplane; but Alfie was certainly going to die at Alder Hey. His parents knew that they were taking desperate measures, involving serious risks. At Alder Hey there was no risk because there was no hope. Why were the doctors so determined to arrange a carefully managed death?
The most ominous lesson of the Alfie Evans case involves the willingness of government officials (with inexcusable encouragement from Catholic prelates) to usurp the rights of parents, to declare themselves the proper judges of what is best for a child. But there is another lesson, too, about the perverse preference for a carefully orchestrated death: for ensuring that when the end comes, everything is in its proper place. The deadly perspective of Planned Parenthood, which has opened a chasm between love and childbirth, is now corrupting our end-of-life decisions as well.
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