Thursday, October 7, 2010

Death, the enemy, or our friend?

I was walking by my neighbor's house here about a year ago and I saw the 85 year old wife sitting on the front porch alone. I had not seen her for a while so I walked towards her and greeted her. She seemed preoccupied. For the last several months I was aware of the fact that she had been suffering some rather severe dimentia. She did not acknowledge my cheery hello but instead said to me " Lee, I think I am going to have to place Dr. Townsend in a nursing home. " She went on to describe how he had been sleeping excessively and was not eating. I asked her if I could see him.

She took me to him. Sure enough, he was in his bed and cast a suspicious and wary eye on me. Now, here was a man whom I have lived by for the last 20 years. He was an active golfer for much of that time. He was retired from the Navy and had at one time been the commander of a significant base hospital. He was a physician and a very smart and friendly fellow. I liked him a great deal and always looked forward to running into him.

Now, here he was, obviously on the downslope of a pretty serious decline in health. I believe there may have been a bit of estrangement between he and his offspring based on the fact that none of them to my knowledge came to visit very often. Well I spoke with a neighbor across the street who was a nurse and their next door neighbors so we could begin a period of keeping them under close surveillance so that they would be in safe harbor.

We all responded and were doing pretty well getting him to see his doctor who prescribed meds to him and sent him on his way. Then came the day where he fell and could not get up. A call was made to 911 and the ambulance came. He resisted being transferred to the hospital because he knew the score. He was quoted as saying, " I just want to be left alone to die here in my own bed." Well he was transferred anyway and they diagnosed him as being dehydrated and having had a mild heart attack. They put him into ICU and kept him there for a couple of weeks.

In the meantime we made contact with a son and ended up having both of the sons come, one an attorney and the other a physician. The decision was made that he would be moved to be near one of them along with Mrs. Townsend. Dr. Townsend made the 18 hour trip in the front seat of his own car. Within 3 weeks we, the neighbors, got wind that he had passed away. He ws 90 years old. Echoing in my mind was his proclamation that he " just wanted to die in his own bed."

Here was a man who had practiced medicine over the course of a lifetime. He knew he was dying. He embraced it and accepted it. The rest of us could not just stand by and not seek some sort of intervention. He led a full, successful and pretty happy life. What would have been wrong with letting him die in his own bed?

I just delivered a eulogy for a friend of mine, Colin. You can read the eulogy if you like on the home page of my website, under "About". Colin had been diagnosed with cancer almost 10 years ago. I made his acquaintance and became his friend approximately 6 years ago. He was always sick and having to take radiation thereapy and ultimately chemotherapy the entire time I knew him. He loved life and did well for the extent of his illness for many years.

His son came and lived with him about 3 years ago and his daughter came within the last year. He was not alone. He would get to feeling better and then lose ground to the illness. He fought a long and brave battle. During his final days he suffered incredibly. Death came at almost midnight 9 days ago. His children and his beloved sister were beside him holding his hand as he passed away. Suddenly in as long as it takes to take a breath and let it out he was gone. The suffering stopped and he was at peace. He was 60 years of age.

My own Father in law contracted an illness akin to Lou Gehrig's disease. It was called a rediculo transverse myolopathy. In any event he was rendered parlyzed from his neck down, placed on a ventilator and had to be moved 250 miles away from his home to be supported in a ventilator hospital. He died after 6 years in that hospital on that ventilator. That was 13 years ago.

My mother in law lived to the age of 86 and got sick and died within 24 hours. She was surrounded by her entire immediate family as she took that last breath and surrendered to the reaper. Cancer took my father at 70 years of age. He was diagnosed in November and dead by mid December.

Is the reaper the enemy or is he our friend? In all of these scenarios I think he was a friend. I once read a quote by a philosopher who said," We fear death as if it were the greatest enemy. We do not know if it is the greatest good. How could anything as natural as death, designed by the Great Architect be bad? We live in the land of the dying. The next land ( for the believer ) is the land of the living. We die that we die no more." ( Neil Fugal, paraphrased ).

I suppose that someday we will all know, won't we? None of us are getting out of this world alive.

Lee Vass

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