The writer is a nursing student in London.
While volunteering with an ambulance service this summer I drove a nine-year-old boy suffering from a degenerative condition to hospital. Because of his disease Charlie was completely bed-bound and dependent on an oxygen cylinder to help him breathe. He got his food through a tube into his stomach and was unable to speak.
Charlie’s father welcomed us in – a big man in his late 50s with red hair pulled back in a ponytail. With a father's pride he took us over to the bedside. “This is my son Charlie,” he said, running tender fingers through the boy’s long blond hair. It was clear Charlie meant the world to him, having cared for his son around the clock for the past nine years. You could see by Charlie’s shining eyes, following his dad around the room, that he lived for his father’s love and unconditional dedication.
Charlie was having difficulty breathing, so we took him to the hospital and afterwards sat in our ambulance to debrief before the next call.
“I think some cases clearly justify euthanasia,” my crewmate Casey blurted out.
I was stunned. That was not the impression I had been left with at all. “I’m never in agreement with euthanasia. Ever.” I stated bluntly.
“You know, I thought that too, until my nephew died. He was sixteen. He died of spinal muscular atrophy. The grief and suffering it caused both him and our whole family, well, I will never forget it.”
There is so much death and darkness in this world already. Why add to it?
“But some good memories too, yes?”
“Of course – a few good ones, but mostly hard.”
“As difficult as these memories are, would they be eased if you had accepted euthanasia as an option for him?”
“I don’t know,” Casey said.
We talked about suffering and death and God. I said if there is a God, do we have any right to determine when the end of our own lives should be, let alone the lives of others?
But if there is a God, why would there be such suffering in the first place, Casey argued.
I said, “Casey I believe in the yin and the yang – there is evil as well as good. But I think the good will win out. There is so much death and darkness in this world already. Why add to it? So many people die whom we can never bring back. Why dispense death to those who can live? As a paramedic you have the three Ps: protect, prevent, and promote – all of which are pro-life. We have no reason to encourage death.”
Casey confessed that as a paramedic you can become quite cynical. You see the evil people do, and you lose hope for the world.
During the following days, I thought more about my conversation with Casey, and kept coming back to Charlie and his dad. If it wasn't for human kindness like the love between these two, I might also despair.
The Bible warns us that in the last days the hearts of many will grow cold. When I think of the prospects of this I shudder inside. Humans are capable of actively working for death in all its grotesque forms: war, abortion, euthanasia. Without love, we look at life in a cold and clinical light as something we have power over; not as a gift from God that we need to treasure and protect.
Why, I wondered, did I feel so strongly about this? I recalled the weeks I spent as a teenager volunteering at a hospice, simply to boost my curriculum vitae. One outstanding memory remains. David was sixty-five when he was diagnosed with stage-four bowel cancer. Eight months later, his body scarred by surgery, radiotherapy, and chemo, he had a room at the hospice. David spent little time alone in his room, however, preferring the common lounge area, where other residents would sit and talk with him. A warmth came from him which lifted and encouraged them.
I would often sit with David in the common room. You could see a deep joy in his eyes, although his face was gaunt and jaundiced from the cancer literally eating him from the inside. “My life was all Harley-Davidsons,” he told me once, rolling up his sleeves to display his impressive collection of tattoos. “When I heard I had cancer, well, that was it for me. That was when I considered euthanasia. I don’t know what made me change my mind, but this last year has been the best year of my life. Can you guess why?” He beamed down at me. “I found faith in God. Now every day is a miracle.” Those hours I spent with David rekindled in me a faith in God which had become tarnished and empty. I thank God that David was still alive to help me. David showed me that God has a plan for every person and doesn’t want any of us to miss one minute of it.
I also thought of my grandfather, Klaus, who as a doctor looked after his own deteriorating health meticulously. Towards the end of one December he became acutely unwell, requiring 24-hour care. This was nothing new for him; he had often been quite sick and had always taken a keen interest in the various tests and interventions. This time was different. With an MRI scan complete and an appointment pending, Grandpa put his foot down. “Now it’s time to think about Christmas coming,” he said. “No more tests.” And that was that.
Grandpa lived for another three years. Free of any commitment to medication regimes and hospital appointments, he was able spend his last years reaching out to others in a unique way. Grandma was completely behind his decision, supporting him and standing by him till the end.
These are real life situations. Suffering comes – none of us can avoid it. Eventually we all must face death, be it quick and painless or prolonged and difficult. We need to stand by one another, and hold the suffering person’s hand. Suffering tests our faith, our friendship, and our devotion, and it can strengthen these bonds and draw us together.