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I Helped to End My Dad’s Life

Okay, I admit it. I helped my father last year to die quicker in a Connecticut rehab center, and I was also witness to an assisted suicide in New York.

It’s time that we put this stuff out in the open and stopped the brutal prosecutorial nonsense around this issue.

As I write this, Barbara Mancini, a 57-year-old nurse here in the punishment state of Pennsylvania, has been charged with a serious felony, and is facing up to 10 years in jail because she put the morphine prescription for Joseph Yourshaw, her dying 93-year-old father, who was in home hospice care but in pain from terminal diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease, into his hands as he requested, so he could terminate his life.

Her father, a decorated WWII veteran, had expressed a desire to end his life at home and to receive no further medical intervention. He understood that he could do that by taking too many doses of morphine, and his daughter gave him the opportunity to make it happen. Unfortunately, the hospice nurse arrived at the home after he had done so, was informed of the action by Mancini, and called 911. Against his earlier stated wishes, Yourshaw was hauled off, comatose, to the hospital, where he was subjected to the medical establishment’s most strenuous efforts to perversely prolong his doomed life, and he died four days later just where he didn’t want to be: hooked up to life support in a hospital bed.

Then, piling on, the prosecutors stepped in, and went after Mancini.

Don’t they have anything better to do?

So back to my father and that New York assisted suicide.

Dad was 89 and in failing health though mentally sharp, when he fell badly, hitting the back of the base of his head on the bedpost so hard it broke off the corner of the bed frame. Rushed to the hospital, he was found to have a cranial bleed that was putting pressure on his brain. Over the next few weeks, shuttled between rehab facility and hospital three times, he gradually lost what control he still had over his arms and legs, eventually even losing his ability to speak or to swallow. He contracted pneumonia and an iatrogenic intestinal infection that was spreading through hospitals across the country at the time. Eventually, he made it clear to me and my siblings that he was done with medical care, and was put in a hospice bed at a local rehab center, He made it clear that he wanted no medical intervention, no food and no water. He would be dead in a matter of days, and knew it. The hospice nurse prescribed morphine, which was given orally, both to relax him, to ease any pain he was feeling, and to ease his labored breathing from the pneumonia. The prescription called for a dose every 1-4 hours as needed to keep him breathing easily.

While dad was still conscious, we told him jokes, sang songs to him, and talked to him. He enjoyed the company, but was clearly fading. Eventually, he lost consciousness. When his breath would become difficult, a nurse would be called, and she’d administer morphine. At that point, I asked the duty nurse why they were coming in only every four hours with the morphine. “You are allowed to give it every hour, so why don’t you just give it to him every hour?” I asked. “Why are we dragging this on?”

The nurse agreed to do so from that point.

It was a mercy for dad and for his close family. With a dose on the hour, his body became visibly much more relaxed, and his breathing and pulse became increasingly slow, with the breaths coming every 10 seconds, then every 15 seconds, and finally as far apart as every 45 seconds. Finally there was a last breath and he was gone. It was completely peaceful.

Did we kill Dad with the closer morphine doses? No. Did we hasten his end? I’m certain we did and certainly hope so. Morphine slows the breathing. Would he have approved? Yes. When his own mother, my grandmother, suffered a severe stroke in a nursing home, also at 89, it was Dad who requested that the nursing home take her off the feeding tube and to stop giving her water — actions that assured her death within a couple of days. He had no qualms about that decision. It was what she’d want, he said, and what he’d want in her situation.

As for that assisted suicide, it happened several decades ago in New York City. An elderly professor my wife and I knew well was dying of cancer and was in hospice care at a major hospital. We went to visit him, and found him happily meeting with all kinds of friends and relatives who were coming to say good-bye. When our turn for an audience came, he showed us the intravenous drip in his arm and explained the little control valve on the tube running from the bag. “This contains my morphine, for pain,” he told us, with his elvish smile. “The doctor showed me how to control the flow with this little valve. One click if I feel pain. Two clicks if one click doesn’t work, three if two doesn’t work.” He paused, smiled conspiratorially, and added, “And he said that if I was ready to go, the fourth click would do it.”

Sure enough, a few days later, after he had seen everyone, tied up all the loose ends in his relationships, and made his peace with old lovers and friends, he rolled the wheel on the valve to the fourth click and was gone.

Did his doctor kill him, or at least assist him in committing suicide? Certainly. Was that a crime? Not in my book. He was dying, and made the choice himself of dying at his own time of choice, and peacefully, instead of wracked with pain from the cancer and hooked up to all kinds of medical devices.

I’m sure these kinds of thing happen all the time all over the country. If every relative or doctor or nurse who assisted a parent or relative in ending a life more quickly and gently were prosecuted for assisting in suicide, or for murder, US jails would be overflowing far worse than they are already from our punishment-obsessed legal system and its political enablers.

How is it that a country that has no problem slaughtering innocents around the world–often dozens of them a time, including children–in the name of hunting down individuals it labels “terrorists,” and calls such deliberate mass murder (which it euphemistically terms “collateral damage”) justified, can get so overwrought about people who just, out of love, help the dying to end their lives peacefully?

Pennsylvania should drop its obscene prosecution of Mancini. She acted to honor her father’s wish to end his own life. This absurdity of prosecuting people for helping the dying to die in peace and with dignity must end.

DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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