John Wurzelmann: Why are we afraid to die?

07/29/2014 12:00 AM

07/28/2014 7:23 PM

I enjoyed Carol Henderson’s column “No Hallmark Here” about end-of-life issues (CHN, I’ve had the same idea of getting a “No Code” tattoo for many years, except my tattoo would say “No Code and No Foley.” That’s a joke that only a medical professional would understand. Ask a nurse if you want to laugh.

In the towns of Greece, when someone dies, the old women of the village rush in and take all of her possessions . In America, we rush in, strip the body naked, pierce it with long needles, infuse it with magical potions, and sizzle the neurons with jolts of electricity. When my elderly father died several years ago, the EMTs performed the usual therapeutic desecration. And then we were charged several thousand dollars for the privilege.

I first became disillusioned with medical practice, when it was my duty as a medical student to take part in this ceremonial rite.

I still remember the crunching of a 90-year-old woman’s osteoporotic ribs, as she was subjected to my rhythmic ministrations.

Once, a young newspaper reporter with terminal throat cancer was saved, but he had been without oxygen for too long; and he had seizures for the next two days before he died.

Another time, a woman who had disseminated sarcoma and multiple disfiguring surgeries had an arrest. As I was calling for the anesthesiologist, the resident leaned over to me and whispered into my ear, “Please let her die. She’s only suffering now.”

Nowadays, I understand the medical profession is much better about getting advance directives, but there are still many instances where uninformed persons are subject to this ritual. I know that there are people who could and should be saved, but we do a poor job of discerning who. At present, the survival rates are miniscule, and the quality of life for those who survive is often terrible. Lying comatose in an ICU, listening to the hissing of the respirator, infused with opioids and paralytics, violated with x-rays and chemicals, is not my idea of a good time.

Peter Tosh said, “Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” If we believe in eternal life, then what are we afraid of?

One of my favorite songs is “Never Grow Old.”

“When our work here is done and the life-crown is won. And our troubles and trials are o’er, All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend, with the loved ones who’ve gone on before.”

Let us imagine such a place. In the mean time, when they put me out to pasture I’m opening a tattoo parlor. It’ll be in the Community Center, behind the golf course; next to the auditorium where they play old movies, and have performances by string quartets, and discussions led by retired university professors. The tattoos will be free, and by then I will have learned how to sing.

John Wurzelmann is a physician who has lived in Chapel Hill for 25 years.

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