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End of life issues to be aired

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If discussions of death can be a two-ton elephant in the room, planning one’s detailed demise might be considered the woolly mammoth.

By MELODY JAMESON

Sun City Center
– If discussions of death can be a two-ton elephant in the room, planning one’s detailed demise might be considered the woolly mammoth.

Yet, sensitive though the subject may be, death is an inevitability. And, for someone terminally ill, wracked with constant agonizing pain, for whom all quality of life has disappeared, the chief desire may be for a choice, the option of earlier rather than later, a reliable plan deliberately undertaken.

On Sunday, March 27, representatives of the Final Exit Network, Inc., (FEN), a national non-profit organization that can provide its members life-ending information and end-of-life comfort, will be encouraging examination of that option during a public meeting. The session is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Southshore Regional Library.

The topic, of course, is no stranger to area church leaders. And, ministers whose pastoral experiences eventually include death in all of its forms, also recognize compassionately that in the 21st century the ability to keep the human body alive now can outstrip all apparent reason to do so. Church policies, they indicate, may be less flexible.

FEN has grown out of merger in recent years of several different “right to die” organizations, including the Hemlock Society, Dr. Tom Tuxill, a scheduled speaker at the March 27 meeting, told The Observer this week. A retired ophthalmologic physician living in central Florida, Tuxill also serves on a FEN medical evaluation panel.

It is a membership organization and provides services only to its members. Moreover, those services are both careful and complex, Tuxill emphasized. They begin with written application by the member stating how he or she has reached a point of seeking death and why the individual foresees no other option.

The multi-layered process continues with a personal visit by a FEN “first responder,” followed up by interviews involving both the individual and his or her family members by “exit guides,” and evaluation by a medical panel of the pertinent medical records, all of it producing a package of competent reports on which to base a conclusion, Tuxill noted.

Not all applicants can be aided by FEN, he added. Individual situations can vary, but among the constants are the determinations that foreseeable death can be the only outcome of the conditions experienced by the individuals and that little quality of life remains. A patient with a metastasizing cancer, for instance, could be a candidate for FEN help while a victim of chronic fibromyalgia, while in considerable pain, would not be, Tuxill suggested.

As for the nature of FEN assistance extended to those accepted, it takes the form only of useful information and supporting comfort, the physician said. FEN can provide specifics on peaceful means of ending life “so that death with dignity can be achieved” and a presence “because no one should die alone.”

Importantly, Tuxill underscored that FEN does not physically facilitate death. The timing, the administering, those attending all are an individual’s choices. Plus, applicants with any reservations on religious grounds are encouraged by FEN to seek hospice care as they face end-of-life issues.

For their parts, some religious leaders in Sun City Center, frequently on the front line in death struggles, point from their firsthand experience to what can be a widening gap between the longer life and the lesser quality of it.

Dr. Gerald Iwerks, pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian whose background includes service as a hospice chaplain, speaks of the difficulty of making judgment calls for someone about ending life, but acknowledges the “big issue” of life technically going on when all quality is gone. It has to come down to personal choice, he said, adding “we try to empower our people to make their own choices.”

“We need to do better” in dealing with the issues, offered Dr. Warren Langer, pastor at SCC’s United Methodist. Methodism teaches that suicide does not separate the follower from God although “we hope that the love of God helps us through what may seem to be hopeless times,” he noted. And, when it comes to the terminally ill, the minister talks sadly of those patients with a week or two remaining in their lives but “basically starving to death” as their individual clocks are allowed to run down. There’s a need to make a distinction between what seems hopeless and what actually is the last stage of life; “two different things to be addressed and resolved,” he said.

On the other hand, at United Community Church, the Rev. Dr. Michael Evans underlined the illegality of helping end life, offering instead the church’s “hospice ministry” and a hospice’s palliative care as the first recommendation for the terminally ill. Carefully, he noted “I believe everyone has the right to determine one’s own medical care” in such circumstances.

His colleague, Rev. Ruth Richardson, more assertively noted that she strongly opposes the sort of assistance offered by Final Exit. Having faced end of life issues in her own family, she added, she supports execution of the DNR (do not resuscitate) order and the rejection of “any extraordinary efforts” to maintain life, but would not in any circumstances support ”taking things into one’s own hands.”

This sentiment generally was echoed by Father Tracy Wilder, rector at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, who pointed to a report produced by the church’s End-of-Life Task Force. Acknowledging that given advancing technology and multiple choices “decisions about the end of life grow ever more difficult,” the task force asserted it is morally wrong to intentionally end life in order to relieve suffering caused by incurable illness. The task force went on to state there also is no moral obligation to prolong the act of dying with extraordinary measures when there is no hope of recovery.

Into that middle ground between not taking life but not prolonging it wades Derek Humphry, chairman of FEN’s advisory board and author of “Final Exit,” the 1991 best seller that deals with “The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying,” along with a half dozen other volumes on the same general subject. According to his books, Humphry, for 35 years a journalist working for major metropolitan daily newspapers in Europe and the U.S., also founded the Hemlock Society and currently is president of the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization (ERGO!)

Humphry’s interest in the subject, he writes, grew out of his journalism related to civil liberties and his first wife’s painful ravaging by cancer. He detailed the search for a means of helping her in “Jean’s Way,” recounting their intellectual journey from discussions with doctors to evaluating means to their ultimate choices that permitted her to die in 1975 “as she wished and as she deserved.”

It’s much the same dialogue, dispelling perhaps both the two-ton elephant and the woolly mammoth, that FEN leaders will sponsor in 10 days.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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