1 – Death Panel: The Power of Rumors

I’ll be the first to admit it.  I know absolutely nothing about health care reform, who’s fer it, who’s agin it, who gets helped or who gets hurt.

When a proposed health care package landed on President Obama’s desk a year ago, rumors of a “Death Panel” immediately began to surface.  It was so ludicrous that I paid little attention.  I wrote it off as the Republican right taking aim at one piece of health care reform that might kill the chances of any real reform taking place. Besides, I figured any reform would most likely cost me and my husband more than we already pay.  So I forgot about it.

Fast forward to a few days ago when I received the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine.  I put on a fresh pot of coffee and settled in to savor some good writing.

I thumbed past “Goings On About Town.” I paged by the commentary and skipped an article on Moscow.  I landed on and actually read half a story about Brad Paisley, Country Singer … sorry, I just don’t do country.  Then I turned the page.

The next story was titled “Letting Go.”

Beneath the title, in italics, were the words “What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?”

Normally, that would have been the kiss of death for me.  It had sad, sadder, saddest written all over it.  But the coffee was still perking, and I thought, what the heck, a few paragraphs won’t kill me.

Six pages later I was sobbing into my coffee mug.  The author of the article, surgeon Atul Gawande, writes as though he is sitting across the table from me, enjoying a coffee, talking in soft tones so as not to disrespect the patients about whom he speaks.

Gawande tells the stories of several terminal patients and their desperate struggle to hold on to life:  a 35 year old pregnant woman whose obstetrician discovered that the soon-to-be mom had inoperable lung cancer; a 72 year old woman with congestive heart failure and pulmonary fibrosis; a 42 year old firefighter with advanced pancreatic cancer. He chronicles the treatments physicians offered and the side effects of those treatments, all of which failed to improve the patients’ condition or halt their decline.

But the point of this article is not that treatments and surgery failed.  The point is how, in these cases, the journey to the end of life played out.  When there was little more medicine could do, the doctors apprised their patients of what they could expect from continued treatments, including experimental ones.  The patients were asked how they wanted to spend the time they had left.  And, at the very end, in-home hospice care was discussed.

The original health care reform act included Medicare coverage for just that – funds to provide compassionate and educated guidance through the poignant process of accepting one’s own mortality and making choices that are best for both patients and their families.  But the idea of allowing physicians to introduce this process to terminally ill patients led to enraged cries of “euthanasia” and “funding for death panels.” As a result, the language for the funding was stripped from the legislation.

It was only after reading this heartrending article that I realized what was lost through political machinations.  There never was a “death panel,” but thanks to one group’s self-serving rumors we have, for the moment, lost perhaps the most intelligent and merciful approach to dying that we as humans can muster.


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