A Faith Story – Part Four
Tamara could not believe what her younger sister, Samantha, had asked her to do the very first time they had seen each other in over thirty-five years. In as plain words as one could ever use, Samantha had said to her older sister, who was a doctor at The Hospital for Sick Children, “’I want you to help me end my life.’”
For a moment, Tamara had said nothing, and then the words burst forth from her, “No! Never! What are you talking about?”
“I know my daughter, Sahara, has told you that I’m very sick,” Samantha had replied calmly. “I’m not sure she knows just how sick I really am though. The doctors have told me that I only have about a year to live.”
“What doctors?” Tamara had asked. “Have you gotten a second opinion? I can have a specialist look at you. What is it that you are supposedly dying from?”
“Ah,” Samantha had said, smiling at her sister. “You’ve just turned into the Dr. Tamara so many people speak of with such respect, haven’t you. Just like that, you’ve taken off your sister hat and put on your doctor hat. Well, that’s good because that’s what I need you to be for me very soon. The government is about to make it legal for a doctor to provide medical assistance in dying in Ontario. I’ve researched it and it says that a patient must be someone who is 18 years of age or older and be capable of making health care decisions. I’m both of those. I also have a serious and incurable illness that is in an advanced state of irreversible decline. As well I consider my medical condition to be in a state of decline that is intolerable to me. And finally, my natural death has become reasonably foreseeable. I meet all of the conditions necessary for euthanasia.”
Tamara had been so stunned by what she had just heard that she had said nothing and simply left the table they had been seated at. It was now a day later and Tamara and Samantha had agreed to meet again to talk about it.
Samantha said, “Tammy, I know this is a lot to take in but you’re a doctor. You know that what I’m asking you to do is perfectly legal.”
Tamara managed to utter a few words, “Yes, yes, I understand that but I don’t understand why you would ever want to end your life before you have to. After all, you have a daughter and granddaughter to think of.”
Samantha nodded her head in agreement. “Yes, I do, and that’s exactly why I want to die before I am so sick and wasted away that it will be too late for me to give my assent to assisted death. You know that the law says I must be mentally capable of making a choice for assisted death and give my final consent to proceed before a doctor can administer the medication. If I wait too long I might slip into a coma or lose the ability to speak or who knows what might happen to me that will make it impossible for me to be eligible. I don’t want that to happen because, as you said, I have a daughter and granddaughter to think of.”
Tamara leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “I won’t do it,” she said. “I will do all I can to help you live but I won’t be part of helping you die. That goes against everything I believe and have promised, as a doctor, to do.”
Samantha sighed before she said, “You mean the Hippocratic Oath.”
“That’s right,” Tamara said. “I have promised to abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm.”
“I understand your reaction,” Samantha said, “and I expected nothing else from you. But let me ask you this, which is the greater wrong-doing and harm, to let a person suffer terribly and die in anguish before they die a certain death or to ease a person’s suffering so that person can die peacefully on his or her own terms?”
“But we have ways to ease that suffering now, “Tamara declared. “With the medicine now available to us, nobody has to die in pain. In fact, my husband and I have donated generously over the years to a local hospice that helps people like you die with dignity in a comfortable and peaceful setting with family around you.
“That’s very good of you and I’m sure many people appreciate it,” Samantha said, not disagreeing or agreeing with her sister, “but there is also the pain of having your family sit with a dying person for days, weeks, or months while that loved one withers away until he or she is only a shadow of who they once were. Do you think Sahara and Faith should see me shrivelling up and watch me while my skin begins to hang on my bones and my eyes disappear into their sockets? Do you think it will be helpful for them to sit by my deathbed and speak with me while I can’t speak back or tell them how much I love them? Do you think I will find that an enjoyable experience if I can still hear them but am locked in a body that cannot respond?”
“I don’t know,” Tamara said, hesitating over each word. “It’s something I really don’t want to think about. The children in my care aren’t eligible for medical assistance in dying so it’s never been on my radar.”
“Then let me ask you this,” Samantha continued. “Do you think the God you profess to believe in would want us to suffer during the last days of our lives on this earth, as his Son, Jesus, did? Or do you think a loving God would want us to use our abilities to help someone die in a manner that they wish to? Doesn’t your religion proclaim that Jesus suffered so that we don’t have to?”
“I don’t know, “Tamara said once again. “I don’t know what to think anymore. I love you and I’ve missed you for so long. I don’t want you to go away again any sooner than you have to. I don’t mind sitting with you each and every day if you will allow me to. I will gladly hold your hand and do what I can to keep you from suffering. That’s what doctors do. That’s what sisters do. We look out for one another. I failed to do that once and I won’t make the same mistake again.”
“Ah, so that’s what all this is about, isn’t it, Samantha said, a slight smile forming at the sides of her mouth. “It’s not just me you’re thinking of or even Sahara and Faith, but also yourself. That’s completely understandable. I think one of the most difficult things in all the world to do is to forget about oneself and one’s own needs and wants and focus on someone else’s well-being before our own. Is that what’s happening here, Tammy? Are you so wrapped up in what you need that you’re forgetting another part of the Hippocratic Oath that says a doctor will not play at being God?”
“What do you mean?” Tamara asked. “How am I playing at being God?”
“I don’t mean you, specifically, “Samantha answered, “but the medical field in general. While the advancements in medicine have done an awful lot of good, they have also prolonged life beyond what it used to be. At one time, certain diseases led to a person’s quick death. Now, doctors can keep a person alive so much longer than when the Hippocratic Oath was first created, so much so that they may be contributing to a person’s pain and suffering rather than alleviating it. This may not be so for many situations but I certainly feel it is for mine. It has been my choice to take certain treatments and medications, but it should also be my choice to stop taking those medicines that are keeping me alive and take a medicine that will help me to die in the manner I choose.”
“But isn’t that you playing God then?” Tamara asked.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Samantha said, “but I don’t have the concern about God that you seem to. You told me once that you thought if a person believed in God, loved Jesus, and was generous with their talents and resources, that person would experience a successful, joyful life, but now you’re not so sure. Is that still how you feel?”
“Yes, I think so,” Tamara said slowly. “I’ve seen too many kind, loving, wonderful people who have a powerful faith who would not appear to be successful or have much to be joyful about. So, I guess I no longer believe that.”
“Then what do you believe?” Samantha demanded. “Do you believe that God is active in the world or simply an absent creator who has set things up and now left us alone to deal with life as we best see fit and are able? Did God even care that I was abused or even worse, care but do nothing about it? Does God simply watch countless people suffer in so many ways and let it happen when it could be stopped? If that’s so, then why would anybody want to follow a God like that?”
Tamara was struck silent by her sister’s words and line of questioning. She realized that Samantha was giving voice to the niggling doubts Tamara had felt from the very beginning of her faith journey when she joined the church. Was it possible that only someone like Samantha, who had experienced so much pain and loss, could express what so many people wonder about?
Samantha pressed her point, “What do you believe, Tamara? Do you believe that your life is worth more than mine? Do you believe God favours some people over others? Do you believe that my grandchild, Faith, who is also your great-niece, is going to be okay because God will heal her or do you believe she will live because people like you, with your training and knowledge, will find a way to heal her?
“I don’t know,” Tamara said once again, in a voice so quiet and unsure that Samantha stopped before asking her next question.
Finally, Tamara said, “What is it you want of me, Samantha?”
“I want you to help me die in the manner that is best for me and what I believe is best for my family,” Samantha answered. “And I want you to help Sahara and Faith to live in the manner that is best for them. I want to know that you are still that same one person I always looked up to and trusted when we were children. And so that I can die in peace, I’m asking you to make sure they are looked after when I’m no longer able to. I know that’s a lot to ask, but that’s what big sisters are for aren’t they, “Samantha said with a grin that only partially masked the desperate plea contained within her words.