Hospice or Hemlock? Searching for Heroic Compassion

Hospice or Hemlock? Searching for Heroic Compassion

Hospice or Hemlock? Searching for Heroic Compassion

Hospice or Hemlock? Searching for Heroic Compassion

Synopsis

This guide introduces general readers to people with personal stakes in the right-to-die conundrum.

Excerpt

In informal surveys of medical professionals as well as lay groups about their end-of-life wishes, I have consistently found little desire for either “hospice” or “hemlock.” What colleagues, friends, and acquaintances all seem to want is to live as long as possible—as intact as possible—and then to die relatively quickly. Some prefer to die in their sleep, with no awareness or preparation, whereas others would prefer a short period (at most a week or two) of “death awareness” so they would have time to settle affairs and say “goodbye.”

With the changing trajectory of dying in the developed Western world, probably fewer than 10 percent of us will die suddenly or after such a brief illness. Most of us will have a long period of chronic illness, perhaps punctuated with periodic acute exacerbations associated with slowly progressive decline in function, prior to our deaths. Furthermore, in part because medical technology is so effective at prolonging life, the end of this process will likely include hard choices about prolonging a diminishing life, or forgoing treatment with an implicit prior decision about accepting or even accelerating death. a “natural death,” unencumbered by medical choices and interventions, is a rarity in our world.

It is in this context that the choice posed by Constance Putnam in her new book, Hospice or Hemlock?: Searching for Heroic Compassion, takes on a particular poignancy. the challenge she presents for us is how to respond compassionately to patients who are dying in the modern context (some of whom are suffering unacceptably after long periods of illness and decline), in particular those who want assistance in dying sooner rather than later. Much of the debate in the United States about how physicians should . . .

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