The process. Part I.
Since his service as a Navy transport pilot in World War II, Julian’s first love has always been flying. Following the war he bought a single engine plane, continuing to fly until suffering a severe heart attack in early 1990. Shortly thereafter, when the FAA would not renew his license he sold his beloved Navion. One more year and he would have held his pilots license for 50 years. In 2004, Dad was at fault in four automobile accidents in less than a year. Thankfully no one suffered anything beyond minor injuries in any of those fender-benders. At the age of 82 Julian acknowledged he was no longer able to safely drive a car. His overall health continued to deteriorate until it was obvious that my stepmother could no longer care for him. In August 2008 dad moved into a small northeastern Kansas nursing home. He sits there today like so many of our elders, receiving three square meals a day, religiously taking his prescribed medications at the appointed hour, having his diapers changed by the staff, watching TV, and playing bingo. At times, I think he’s got it pretty good (except for the bingo – I’m not a fan). And yet I recognize this interminably slow and deliberate march towards death is full of pain on many different levels.
In the 1850’s the average American life expectancy was only 39 years. Improved living conditions and consistent food production have impacted our longevity considerably, but hasn’t the advent of pharmaceuticals with their ability to manage so many different deadly diseases had the most significant impact on our increased longevity? When I watch the vast array of drugs being pumped into my dad’s body it’s hard to see it any differently. Remove any one of the medications from his bloodstream for more than just a few hours and the entire system begins collapsing. I witnessed this dramatic transformation firsthand when Julian quit taking his medications shortly before the nursing home transition. As the doctor said, without the drugs he would have died within a few days.
Like so many others, my dad’s physical decline has been a methodical and degrading process. Through the years I’ve heard many people say that life can be unfair and cruel. Recently an old friend summed it up more appropriately. Death sucks! If dying is simply a systematic progression of nature why do individuals and society attempt to forestall its reasonable conclusion? Lately, I’ve been questioning if contemporary medicine has strayed too far from the Hippocratic oath. At what point do we say enough?