In the End

Whose hands should death be in?


photo by Katie Golden

Seeing a loved one's health rapidly detiriorate can be a challenge for anyone. Such emotional stress can cause one to look in desperation for any solution.

By Michael Taffe, North Allegheny Senior High School

On Saturday, October 5th, while at a Marching Band event, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. Thinking that it was a friend sending a Snapchat or Instagram post, I chose to ignore it. Around 20 minutes later, I remembered the notification and took out my phone to check what it was. My dad had texted me saying that my grandmother was being rushed to the hospital for acute lower abdominal pain. I quickly replied, asking if there were any updates and how severe the problem was. It wasn’t until the bus ride home an hour later when I finally got a response. There was a knot in her lower intestine that required a surgical operation and a large, possibly malignant tumor in her ovaries.

After arriving back at the school, I called my father who told me that my mother and aunt were talking to the surgeon to decide on a course of action. He told me that while I shouldn’t worry, I should stay close in case I needed to come to the hospital. After I dropped off a friend at her house, my mother called, telling me that surgery was not possible and my grandmother would be placed on hospice — a medical practice where attention is placed on the physical and mental comfort of a patient once the viability of curing the patient no longer exists.

I rushed to the hospital as fast as the speed limit would allow and soon was in her emergency room.

Assisted suicide was a solution to ending her back pain, her hip aches, and her agony. It was, however, a solution outside the law.”

“Now, there will be no crying,” my grandmother said to me as I hurried into the room. “Everyone must go at some point,” she repeated to all of us.

For the next half hour, we tried to keep her comfortable and say thanks or goodbyes. I told her I applied to my first college, while my aunt talked about her kids coming in first place at their swim meet. We all reminisced about our favorite memories together, trying to distract her from the pain in her abdomen. 

After around 45 minutes, my grandmother fell asleep and was moved from the ICU to a more comfortable floor. She was prescribed 6mg of morphine per hour with additional doses of morphine and Ativan as needed. Even so, almost every hour she would moan or twitch in her unconscious state due to her pain. My dad, my uncle, and I left the hospital around two in the morning. We all expected that at some point in the night she would pass.

On Sunday, we returned to the hospital. While my grandmother had managed to hang on, her condition worsened and her morphine drip was increased to 8mg per hour. On Tuesday, it increased to 14 mg. By the next Saturday, she was receiving 16mg every hour plus another immediate dose of 10mg every half an hour. Despite her high intake of narcotics, there were still times in which my grandmother showed signs of pain. A twitch of her leg or an involuntary moan was not uncommon.

Seeing her like this was heartbreaking. This was the grandmother who had babysat me after school and during the summer for years. This was the grandmother who taught me how to play solitaire and would put sugar on my fruit even when my mother said not to. This was the grandmother who hosted Christmas, watched Harry Potter with me, and would make her own maple syrup while babysitting me in the morning. To see her unconscious for over a week and in visible pain was nearly too much to bear.

Every day after school, I would drive down to the hospital to visit her, hoping for some update. Occasionally, her heartbeat would grow faint and her breathing would become shallow. We thought she was in her final minutes and would begin to say our goodbyes only to have her rebound. Despite how much I loved her and how I wish she could live forever, part of me wished I could flip a switch to end her suffering in that hospital room.

Despite how much I loved my grandmother wished she could live forever, part of me wished I could flip a switch, as to end her suffering in that hospital room.”

Assisted suicide, also called the right to die, is a form of suicide that is conducted in a controlled medical environment with certified doctors that help the patient end their life. In the United States, only eight states plus the District of Columbia have laws that allow doctors to assist in the controlled death of a patient. Switzerland, a small and wealthy European country, is one of the only countries in the world to allow assisted suicide. Because of this, an industry called “suicide tourism” has sprung up in the country. A patient must pass a psychological test to ensure mental stability and provide a logical medical reason for wanting to end their life. 

A part of me wished that my family could use assisted suicide to expedite the process and prevent my grandma from suffering any longer. My grandma had lived a long, full life and was nearly 86 years old. To me, it seemed that any more time spent in the hospital would serve only to take away from her experience on earth. Assisted suicide was a solution to ending her back pain, her hip aches, and her bowel agony. It was, however, a solution outside the law.

The next Sunday, nine days after she was first admitted to the hospital, my grandmother passed away. At the time, my mother and my aunt were with her and held her hand as she passed. A huge weight had been lifted. My family was now able to properly mourn instead of having to worry about my grandmother’s health.

Soon following her death, however, I began to question my beliefs about assisted suicide. During those last few days of my grandmother’s life, I supported the idea — but once she had passed, I came to see that she had done so on her own terms. Despite the immense struggle of her last few days, my grandmother waited until it was her time to go. 

Some may see a controlled death as an easier and more dignified end for the terminally ill, and with a majority of Americans in support of assisted suicide, more states should legalize the option.  But for my family, witnessing the natural end to my grandmother’s life brought us greater peace.

While I do believe that assisted suicide should be legal for those who want to pursue it, that decision should be left up to the patient. My grandmother did not posses the cognitive ability to make that decision and although she did suffer, I believe that given the option she would have wanted to die on her own terms, and she did exactly that. 

This story was originally published on The Uproar on October 22, 2019.