Third & final report on a few highlights of the global conference ‘The End of Life Experience: Dying, Death & Culture in the 21st Century’ in Lisbon, March 2018
What are the tough end-of-life questions facing the people of Australia? Pretty much the same as those facing the people of the U.S. Or the U.K., or Canada, or Portugal. A few of those discussed at the recent End of Life Experience interdisciplinary conference in Lisbon would include:
How, exactly, do we define death after all? Iona College Professor Vincent Maher, who holds a variety of degrees and whose career has included broad based legal, health care and non-profit sector experiences, presented a paper on the complex case of Jahi McMath. McMath was declared brain dead following surgery to correct a sleep apnea condition at Children’s Hospital, Oakland CA in 2013. She was 13 years old. Her family refused to accept the declaration of death and insisted she be kept on a ventilator. “Court interventions, news and social media exposure ensued,” Maher explains. “Fingers were pointed. What should have been a difficult but straightforward medical decision became a management, ethical and legal fiasco.” Eventually the family succeeded in having Jahi flown to New Jersey, one of two states (New York being the other) which follow a family’s definition of death. This policy was designed to accommodate Orthodox Jews, some of whom believe that the presence of breath signifies life. Jahi remains on a ventilator and feeding tube, with 24-hour care covered by Medicaid; her family still hopes to bring her back to California – where the coroner issued her death certificate in 2014.
Set aside the ethical, racial (McMath is African American,) financial and other questions, what is death? When the heart stops? When breathing stops? Or when the brain is dead? Medical technology can now keep a body functioning after brain death – organ donation is benefiting from this – but at some point, death takes over.
Can we keep control of our lives as they are ending? Increasingly, no, says Dr. Peter Saul, Senior Specialist, Intensive Care Unit, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW, Australia. “Dying in the 21st century in a wealthy country,” Saul says, “is now dominated by elderly people with significant disability, sometimes cognitively impaired, faced with making complex end of life care choices.” And those choices commonly follow “standard (medical) protocols and (are) in line with family wishes regardless of preferences recorded in advance care directives.” Australians, like the majority of people everywhere, would choose to die at home, Saul says; but “the entire structure and funding model of Western medicine greatly favors tertiary and hospital care over that provided in the community.”
Saul suggests that “the medical system at all levels would need to become proactive in creating genuine opportunities for choices to be available. This means asking more, offering more education, taking choice seriously and pushing back against a legal system that favors defensive medicine and over-treatment even in the same breath as pushing ‘patient autonomy.’”
So, is there anything hopeful on the horizon for the end-of-life experience? Definitely. Ottowa, Canada psychologist Morry Appelle and his wife, therapist Christine Appelle presented a paper on a discussion group they started five years ago “in an attempt to address more consciously and formally our own concerns of death.” They were surprised to find eager participants who became faithful, regular attendees, and who agreed to allow videos of some of their meetings to be shared. It is a remarkably effective way to confront mortality.
This writer left Lisbon urging the Appelles to publish a book about their novel idea, but you don’t really have to wait for the book. A group of friends or strangers willing to meet together for an extended period of time and simply talk through everyone’s fears and concerns offers an invaluable way to face, and embrace, life’s end. Such an experience could well lead to the patient autonomy and personal choice currently under threat in wealthier nations around the globe. It would undoubtedly help to have someone like Morry &/or Christine Appelle as facilitator. “Mostly,” they said about their experimental group, “we wished to look more intimately at the mystery of life and death, thereby dispelling some of its associated anxiety and fear. To the extent we could live out this life as fully and consciously as possible, we proposed that lifting the veil on death was a reasonable place to begin.”
The Lisbon conference did a lot of veil-lifting. Also lifted up? Questions worth pondering, wherever on this fragile planet we happen to be sharing our fleeting mortality.