My son Todd was desperately gasping for breath as he thrashed around in his bed for what seemed like an eternity before he died at 54. He could have had a peaceful death and just slipped away quietly if Minnesota had passed the Compassionate Care Act (CCA).
In a commentary written for the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in the Star Tribune on May 16 (“The truth is, there’s an easy — and natural — way to die”), Dr. Ann Marie Chiasson of the University of Arizona said we have no need for the CCA and laid out one possible “pleasant” natural death — by starvation — as a better option to assisted death.
While it would have been possible to starve Todd to death rather than removing his breathing tube, it would have seemed bizarre to keep him alive on a ventilator while starving him for days as he lay unconscious and sedated. One has to question to what end would anyone chose starvation. Of course, there would have been a huge emotional and financial cost to this action as well.
Todd suffered an aneurysm/stroke and was placed on a ventilator for 10 days as we tried to save him. By day 10, his blood vessels were spasming and causing many other strokes on both sides of his brain. The doctor agreed that removing his breathing tube was a humane act. We met with the palliative care team and were told he would be given enough morphine to control any possible pain but that under Minnesota law he could not be given enough to let him go. However, we were led to believe his death would be peaceful.
The moment of Todd’s death came. Ten or so family members stood around his bed. The stage was set, and we were ready to say our goodbyes as Todd quietly breathed his last breath. The nurse took out his breathing tube.
Todd immediately began gasping for air and urgently thrashing around trying to breathe. He continued to gasp and thrash for the eternal minutes it took for his face to gradually turn blue and for him to die of suffocation. He looked just like a fish thrown to the floor of a boat as it gasps for air before dying. I couldn’t stay in the room the whole time — it was too painful. This was my son who, to all appearances, was suffering horribly, and I could do nothing to help him. The attending nurse told me he was not feeling anything due to the morphine, but there is no way to know if this was true. Finally, this seemingly never-ending ordeal was over and Todd lay there staring up at the ceiling with dull, unseeing eyes, blue face and all. He most assuredly did not look at peace. My hands were shaking, and my stomach was churning. I had just witnessed “natural” death in Minnesota.
This awful experience, for him and for the family, could have been avoided. I urge everyone, when the Minnesota Compassionate Care Act again comes before the Legislature, to call their legislators and press for its passage. This bill is about choice. It gives us a choice in how we want to leave this Earth. It certainly does not require anyone to be assisted in this last act, but for those who don’t want to suffer any of the many miserable ways death claims us, or “pleasantly” starve to death, it offers a better option.
The act could be the difference between you or your beloved family member slipping away peacefully — or struggling while gasping and fighting for a last breath.
Jan Dietrich lives in Brooklyn Park.