HER DOCTOR AVOIDED THE WORD “STARVATION”
By Rosie G.
This case exposes why every person should be extremely careful about the wording of their healthcare advance directive and choosing the person they want to make medical decisions for them in a critical situation. For information about advance directives, read “The Best Advance Directive” in Making a Difference.
My mother-in-law Helen, over a period of years, had a series of mini strokes without any permanent mental or physical damage. Then, about 10 years ago, she suffered a massive stroke which left her with limited abilities of speech and mobility and other disabilities. Her loving husband was by her side and her eight living children were called home to spend time with her. Read more…
Helen had a Living Will expressing she would not want extraordinary treatment if she were ever in this type of condition. Due to difficulty swallowing, it was apparent that she could not continue to safely eat in the ordinary manner. Her doctor said that, to receive nourishment, she would need a feeding tube. He negatively presented the information regarding inserting and living with a feeding tube, as though it were extraordinary means, an inconvenience for all involved, and probably not the way she would want to live. Without a feeding tube, he said she would slowly and peacefully lose consciousness over the next few days and would have a painless death. He did not use the word “starvation.”
Helen was unable to express herself. However, when praying the rosary at her bedside, she quietly joined in with us on the Hail Mary prayers. Her loving husband felt torn because he did not want to deprive her of nourishment, but if he allowed them to put in the feeding tube, he feared he would be going against his wife’s previous wishes. Most of her children helped him decide, convincing him that she would not want to live under these limited conditions. My husband tried to explain that a feeding tube was not extraordinary means; that it would be inhumane to allow their mother to starve to death, but to no avail. He then called in the local Catholic priest who explained to the family that not providing her with a means of nourishment would go against what the Church teaches about the dignity of life. He added that nourishment, even by feeding tube, was not extraordinary means, but in fact humane and necessary. My father-in-law, a practicing Catholic who respected the priest’s input, then allowed the procedure to insert the feeding tube, even though most family members were not convinced this was the right thing to do. During this time, my mother-in-law also developed pneumonia, but was not being treated for it because the medical team interpreted her Living Will to mean that life-preserving treatment was not allowed.
With little change in her condition, Helen was eventually transferred to a nursing home. After a period of weeks there, my husband was notified by his stepfather (Helen’s husband) that the decision was made to remove the feeding tube. Shortly thereafter, she passed away.
HALO note: For more information about medical decisions concerning nutrition and hydration, as well as other kinds of medical treatment and care,
read Life-Affirming Principles for Medical Decision-Making.