Monday, April 09, 2007

Strangers at Our Bedside: Updated

It is a sad state of affairs when medical life and death decisions are decided by a committee. No doubt that in the last few decades, the medical community has provided ample ways of improving health and well-being for all people, from those unborn to those who are elderly. But at the same time, the medical community has succumb to the philosophies of the day in which cost analysis makes a difference in someone's care or the notion of "futility" becomes critical for deciding whether a person should live or die or better yet, medicine directs itself solely for the purpose of the elimination of suffering.

We also have moved away from a very local-oriented medical community (where you went to the same doctor time and time again and the doctor knew you and your family well and you knew the doctor well too) to a medical community of strangers in which you barely know much about your own doctor and he knows little more than what his diagnostic sheets tell him.

And when medical emergencies or complications arise, we go to a hospital, which is full of medical strangers who provide well or badly the medical care we need and in some cases we are left to the mercy of their decision-making powers, sometimes to the very issue of whether we will live or die. Take for example this case in Texas (free registration may be required to view the article). You have probably heard of similar stories. A family is fighting to keep their very sick toddler alive over and against the decision of the hospital seeking to end the child's life.
As 17-month-old Emilio Gonzales lies in a hospital, hooked up to tubes to help him breathe and eat, his mother holds him close and cherishes every movement.

Catarina Gonzales knows her baby is terminally ill and that one day she'll have to let go. But it's not yet time, she and her attorneys contend in their legal clash with hospital officials who want to stop Emilio's life-sustaining treatment.

An unusual Texas law signed by George W. Bush when he was governor lets the hospital make that life-or-death call. The latest legal dispute over the law -- Emilio's case -- goes to court again Tuesday, the day his life support is set to end.

"The family has made a unified decision" to keep Emilio living through artificial means, said Joshua Carden, an attorney for the Gonzales family. "The hospital is making quality of life value judgments. That's a huge source of concern."

Children's Hospital of Austin has been caring for Emilio since Dec. 28. He's believed to have Leigh's Disease, a progressive illness difficult to diagnose, according to both sides.

The boy cannot breathe on his own and must have nutrition and water pumped into him. He can't swallow or gag ... said Michael Regier, general counsel for the Seton Family of Hospitals, which encompasses the children's hospital.

Emilio's higher order brain functions are destroyed, and secretions must be vigorously suctioned from his lungs, Regier said.

"The care is very aggressive and very invasive," Regier said. Though the treatment is expensive, the hospital contends that money is not part of its decision. Emilio has health coverage through Medicaid.

Doctors and a hospital ethics panel determined the treatment is causing the boy to suffer without providing any medical benefit, Regier said.
Money is not the issue here, if that can be believed. The hospital wants to remove treatment because the boy is suffering due to the treatment. This is ironic. Trying to reduce suffering, but at what cost? The life-sustaining equipment will be turned off and then what? As the attorney for the family notes:
... Emilio's death by asphyxiation would be painful. He said the law prevents hospital workers from even giving the boy the drugs death row inmates receive to help them as they are executed by lethal injection.

"It's not like he'll just drift quietly off," he said.
In the end, a poor helpless little boy will have to suffer his death all due to a committee thinking it has the right and responsibility to end his suffering. How very scary it is to find that strangers have control over our lives and our loved ones when we are most vulnerable and in need of love, care, and support.
For those keeping up with the story, LifeSite is reporting that on April 11, the Texas judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the hospital from letting Emilio die. The case is to be argued furthe in the following week. You can view the story here.

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