DYING FOR RELIEF by Cheryl Eckstein
Toward the end of 1997, I spoke at the International Conference on Euthanasia, hosted by the Hippocratic Society at the prestigious Harvard University, in Boston, Massachusetts. When I arrived at the University entrance, I was surprised to see Harvard Gate surrounded by police and thousands of demonstrators. They had come to protest or support China's president, Jiang Zemin. As I moved through the crowd, I was reminded of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, and wondered how this man could face the American students. But that was not my concern, I was here to talk about another crime, euthanasia.
As I approached my destination in the Science building, I was awe struck to find additional police. I soon knew why. Another group had come to Harvard to demonstrate. This group comprised of people with disabilities. They all belong to the dynamic organization called NOT DEAD YET (NDY).
NOT DEAD YET gathered to protest against those who promote the legalization and practice of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Like the demonstrators who gathered to protest against the Chinese president, they wanted freedom of speech, and freedom from fear and death.
I was shocked to see members of NDY being lifted in their wheelchairs and carried out by the police. I found this very upsetting and hypocritical to what this particular conference was all about. I told the police, they looked like Gestapo, especially with their knee high leather boots and leather jackets. As the last of the disabled protestors were escorted or carried out, I wondered if I were a witness to history repeating itself.
A major concern in the modern euthanasia movement centres on the 'slippery slope' ideology. Euthanasia is not about killing healthy so-called able-bodied people. Euthanasia is about killing the most vulnerable, disabled, and weakest in our society. NOT DEAD YET is a most important body of people who must be heard and taken absolutely seriously.
Several years ago, I became disabled with a non terminal condition and am now classified as a chronic pain patient. I know from experience the agony of protracted pain - a pain so serious, that it began to have devastating results on me spiritually and emotionally. I know what toll unrelieved pain can have on the family, and friends. Pain changes people. Organizers of the Harvard conference, gave me the opportunity to discuss whatever I wanted. Since the majority of Kevorkian's subjects have not had terminal conditions, I thought this was the chance of a lifetime to talk about the myths and misinformation besetting non-terminal pain patients. In a nutshell, the under-treatment of all pain is a national disgrace.
"Pain" as Albert Schweitzer once said, "is a more terrible lord of mankind than even death itself."
According to the National Chronic Pain Outreach Association it affects all ages, races and occupations. Some statistics say 1 in 10 Americans (25 million people) are affected by chronic pain. Chronic pain disables more people than cancer or heart disease, and it costs $90 billion per year in disability payments and lost productivity. Yet until recently it received little attention from medical researchers and is still one of the most misunderstood and underfunded health problems in North America. Chronic pain affects husbands, wives, children, friends, employers, co-workers. It interferes in all aspects of the person's life: work relationships, self-esteem and emotional well being.
Prolonged pain destroys the quality of life. It can wear away the will to live, at times driving people to suicide. The physical effects are equally serious. Severe, persistent pain can impair sleep and appetite, thereby producing fatigue and reducing the availability of nutrients to organs. It may thus impede recovery from illness or injury and, in the disabled, or weakened or elderly patients, may make the difference between life and death.
The goal of every doctor treating chronic pain patients should be to provide proper and adequate analgesics. Medications used to bring about painlessness are: -- Morphine, Dilaudid, Methadone, Percocet and othersłall of them powerful narcotics broadly known as opioids.
When other means fail to provide relief from chronic debilitating pain, opioids are considered the best drugs available for fighting the more severe pain. By binding with neurons, they stop pain messages from traveling up the spinal cord. The morphine molecules target the affected nerves -- the "receptors" -- and bind to them, dulling the discomfort. No "high" results. Patients taking opioids may experience side effects like constipation or drowsiness, and they do eventually build up a tolerance for the drug -- but they will not become addicted to it. In fact, Morphine is no more addictive to a person in pain than insulin is to a diabetic.
Having cancer, does not mean you will have pain. Some cancer patients have some discomfort, but not pain.
Being diagnosed with cancer, does not mean you will die from it. More and more people are surviving, and die from other causes or natural deaths without the cancer ever returning. Still, there is bad news for some. A 1995 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that half of 9,000 terminally ill patients had spent their dying days in moderate or severe pain. Other studies put that number at closer to 70 per cent. In spite of scientific proof that opiods work in favour of the patients, many of these patients died suffering needlessly, because of their physician's antiquated fear that their patient would become addicted.
It is interesting to note that just 100 years ago, the wonder drug 'aspirin' was invented by Felix Hoffmann, who simply wanted to relieve his father's pain from crippling rheumatism. One hundred years ago, the request to die was uncommon, yet very little could be done for intractable pain and suffering the patient was enduring. How strange, that today, when nearly 100% of even the most severest pain can be sufficiently relieved without any serious side effectsłsome want euthanasia or physician - assisted suicide.
It is terribly sad to know that some patients are so fearful of being doped to near-unconsciousness that they don't report their pain to their doctor. Many believe pain from cancer is inevitable, or are afraid to admit they have pain or that it's worsening. They believe more pain means the disease is getting worse.
If you are a chronic pain patient or someone in your family is, find out all you can about the condition or disease. The Internet is absolutely the best place to start, if you have access to a computer. If not, you should be able to find the information at your local library. Don't depend on your doctor, unless he or she is very knowledgeable about pain control. Some pain patients suffering with severe pain are only being treated with Tylenol 3 or its counterpart. This is not acceptable.
If severe protracted pain were being relieved, people like Jack Kevorkian would be out of business. Pain can be controlled so chronic pain patients can regain their lives
Cheryl Eckstein is the founder of Compassionate HealthCare Network.
"DYING FOR RELIEF" originally published by PROLIFE NEWS CANADA MARCH 1998
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