As health reform slogs along, a few critical pieces are already gone for good — or for now, at least. One of the saddest is coverage for end-of-life conversations; one of the saddest elements of our culture in general and healthcare mish-mash in particular is the tendency to treat death as a curable disease. Timothy Egan, in a recent blog for the New York Times, makes an eloquent case for injecting a little reality into all this.
In the last days of her life, Annabel Kitzhaber had a decision to make: she could be the tissue-skinned woman in the hospital with the tubes and the needles, the meds and smells and the squawk of television. Or she could go home and finish the love story with the man she’d been married to for 65 years.
Her husband was a soldier who had fought through Europe with Patton’s army. And as he aged, his son would call him on D-Day and thank him – for saving the world from the Nazis, for bequeathing his generation with a relatively easy time.
That son, John Kitzhaber, knew exactly what his mother’s decision meant. He was not only a governor, a Democrat who served two terms in Oregon as it tried to show the world that a state could give health care to most of its citizens, but a doctor himself.
At age 88, with a weak heart, and tests that showed she most likely had cancer, Annabel chose to go home, walking away from the medical-industrial complex.
“The whole focus had been centered on her illness and her aging,” said Kitzhaber. “But both she and my father let go that part of their lives that they could not control and instead began to focus on what they could control: the joys and blessings of their marriage.”
She died at home, four months after the decision, surrounded by those she loved. Her husband died eight months later.
The story of Annabel and Albert Kitzhaber is no more remarkable than a grove of ancient maple trees blushing gold in the early autumn, a moment in a life cycle. But for reasons both cynical and clinical, the American political debate on health care treats end-of-life care like a contagion — an unspeakable one at that.
Kitzhaber, having seen the absurdities of the system — Medicare would pay hundreds of thousands for continuing treatments but not $18 an hour for an in-home caregiver to help her die as she chose — was among the thousands of us who were distressed to see the debate get sidetracked by misinformation and outright lies. He knows the truth: that changing the way we treat dying people is the only way real economies and compassionate reform will happen. He is not only a politician, currently running for a third term as governor of Oregon, the state that has shown us the way, but a physician. And he’s smack in the middle of the Baby Boomer generation. Egan cites the recent Newsweek cover article by Evan Thomas, “The Case for Killing Granny,” and its on-target line about this being the elephant in the room, “Everybody sees it, but nobody wants to talk about it.
John Kitzhaber, M.D., politician, and son who watched both parents die in a dignified way, cannot stop talking about it. His parents’ generation won the war, built the interstate highway system, cured polio, eradicated smallpox and created the two greatest social programs of the 20th century — Social Security and Medicare.
Now the baton has been passed to the Baby Boomers. But the hour is late, Kitzhaber says, with no answer to a pressing generational question: “What is our legacy?”