A tough story eloquently told by California physician Martin Welsh adds poignancy to the fight for legalized physician aid in dying, and emphasis to the need for patient choice as a consideration in health reform. Dr. Welsh speaks in clear language of his current dilemma:
I am a 55-year-old retired family doctor with a large, loving family and innumerable friends and former patients whom I see often. I am an extraordinarily lucky man.
For the last five years, I have also been a patient. I have ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a cruel neurological illness in which a normally functioning intellect becomes trapped in an increasingly weak and eventually paralyzed body. Soon, I will die from it.
Through my career, I tried to honor my patients’ end-of-life wishes. But after a quarter-century as a firsthand witness to death, I’ve developed my own perspective.
It’s not that I’m a quitter. I have struggled against adversity of one sort or another all my life, and those challenges have helped prepare me for what I face now. I still delight in accomplishing difficult things, and I always wear a bright red ALS wristband that says “Never Give Up.”
That said, there will come a limit. I have made it very clear to my wife, my family and my doctors that I want no therapy that will prolong my suffering and lengthen the burden on others. I do not want a feeding tube nor a tracheotomy when the time comes that I can no longer eat, drink or breathe for myself.
Dr. Welsh suggests, for himself and others, making a list of 100 things that make life worth living, ordinary things one does every day.
Some are routine, some are “chores,” some are pleasurable. Get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. Kiss your wife. Answer the phone.
Drive your car to work. Go play golf with your friends. Brush your teeth. Write a letter, lick and seal the envelope closed and put a stamp on it. Hug your child.
Of course we do many more than 100 things each day, but for now, just imagine 100 that are essential to the life you live. Now if you take away one, you can still do 99. Is life worth living without being able to smell the rose in the garden? Of course it is! How about losing two or seven, or 23 — is life still worth living? Of course.
But suppose you get to where you’ve lost, say, 90 things, and now with each thing taken away, a bad thing is added…
At some point, no matter who you are or how strong, you can lose enough things that matter — and acquire enough negatives — that the burdens will outweigh the joys of being alive…
Recognizing he’ll reach that point one day, Dr. Welsh looks his destiny squarely in the eye:
…as I face my diminishing list of the 100 things that make life worth living, the choice of quality over quantity has to be mine to make.