Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Lesson in Dying With Dignity

In the latter years of All in the Family, Edith (Jean Stapleton) ventured outside the home and began doing volunteer work at the Sunshine Home, a senior citizens' rest home.

It was the joy of her existence — until the episode that aired 35 years ago tonight.

The irony of this episode is that Edith did what the head nurse told her to do for a terminally ill patient (Angela Clarke) — "give her what she asks for."

The trouble is that what she asked for was to be allowed to die in peace. Well, not in those words.

After a brief conversation, Edith asked if there was anything she could do. "Just hold my hand," the patient said, "and don't let go."

And that is what Edith did. She held the patient's hand as she passed away. She didn't call anyone, and for that she was fired.

The woman's daughter (Dolores Sutton) came to see Edith, and the two had a touching conversation about death. The daughter wanted to know what her mother talked about, how she had spoken of her daughter in her final moments. And Edith told her.

The daughter seemed to be seeking some kind of absolution. She spoke of how she was scared of death, implying that was the reason she hadn't visited her mother as often as she would have liked.

"You're a very strong woman," the daughter told Edith before she left, "and I'm very grateful my mother had you with her today."

"What did you do?" Archie asked after the daughter left.

"I did what she asked me to do," Edith replied. "I held her hand, and I didn't let go."

Until this evening in 1979, I do not recall hearing much about death with dignity.

I had heard about euthanasia — so–called "mercy killing" — but that isn't what this was about. This was about dying with dignity.

The elderly patient had had more than one heart attack. She was at peace with her life and with the idea of dying. She told Edith that, as she was having her most recent heart attack, she could see her late husband beckoning to her,and she wanted to go to him, but the doctors kept her alive.

"I've lived a good life," she told Edith. "Why can't the end be good, too?"

It's the kind of question I have heard of more and more people asking. Three states have Death with Dignity Acts, which mostly deal with cases where physicians help terminally ill patients end their lives.

Here in Texas we have had an Advance Directives Act since 1999. Under the Advance Directives Act, a health care facility can stop life–sustaining treatment 10 days after giving notice. The hitch is that the treatment must be considered futile care by the medical team that is treating the patient.

But Death with Dignity Acts and an Advance Directives Act don't address what Edith did — nothing more than hold her friend's hand and provide some comfort in her final minutes. She didn't do anything to help end her friend's life — except by omission. She didn't summon help that might have extended her friend's life for awhile.

She just held her hand and didn't let go.