It was the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had. The hospital doctor had just told my 77-year-old mother she needed open-heart surgery if she was to have a chance of living, and my mother had to decide within the next few hours whether she wanted to go ahead with the operation.
My mother’s mind was made up. She wasn’t going to have the operation. The doctor left us to talk it over and I had to make sure my mother fully understood the implications of her decision. I asked her if she realized what she was doing, that surgery was her only chance of survival, but she was steadfast in her decision.
Despite having been hospitalized in a weak state for a few days, with an oxygen mask strapped to her nose to keep her functioning properly, my mother’s mind was razor sharp as she analyzed her options.
First of all, the doctor could not guarantee that the operation would be successful – until they operated, they had no clear picture as to whether her heart would stand the strain of the operation. Secondly, even if the surgery was successful, the whole process would be very painful and it would take months of convalescence before she would be back on her feet. And thirdly, even if she ever recovered from a purely medical standpoint, it was very unlikely she would be able to live an independent life. So what would be the point? There was no arguing with her. Her bleak analysis of her situation was accurate and unsentimental; a strong woman who not so long ago had nursed my father through his final illness, she wasn’t prepared to live out her remaining years in some form of painful half-existence, thousands of miles away from her only child and grandchildren. She said all this plainly and matter-of-factly, and then lay back on her hospital bed to signal the matter was closed.
She knew what she was doing. Years earlier, she had told me that both she and my father had made a living will, leaving strict instructions that if they ever slipped into a coma or had a massive heart-attack or stroke, they were not to be resuscitated.
Neither of them wanted to be kept alive just for the sake being alive, hooked up to tubes and catheters, totally reliant on machines and nursing staff for their existence.
And so, after a few days, with the oxygen mask removed, my mother began to slip away, with morphine injections to relieve any pain being the only remaining medical intervention. She died on her own terms, peacefully and in control of her own destiny.
I FIRMLY believe my mother made a brave choice in deciding the manner of her death and fully recognize that an important factor behind her decision was her strong desire not to be a burden on me or anybody else. It’s hard not to believe that had he been given the chance, Ariel Sharon would also have made the same decision.
Given his exploits on the battlefield, there is no doubting Sharon’s bravery. Nor, given his immensely active life, can one doubt that Sharon would have hated to know that his last eight years would be spent in a comatose state, reliant on a breathing machine and round-the-clock nursing to keep him alive.
And yet Sharon, at the time of this writing, has not just been kept alive – over the past eight years, doctors at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer have actively treated the former prime minister, even to the point of operating on him recently in an attempt to improve a worsening condition.
According to Professor Avinoam Reches, chairman of the ethics committee of the Israel Medical Association, Sharon has not been cared for any differently, in terms of medical treatment, than other patients in his condition. As a society, Reches told a weekend newspaper, we have decided to absorb the cost of treating such patients even if, at a certain point, it becomes “a waste of money.”
Putting the money to one side – in Sharon’s case, the cost of keeping in hospital, due to the increased security requirements, reached NIS 1.6 million a year – it is time that Israeli society conducted a debate over the quality of life, and whether patients in a comatose state should be artificially kept alive in a pointless existence that can, as we’ve seen in the case of Sharon, last for years.
My mother showed me how one can die bravely and with dignity, showing consideration for others. One has to regret that Sharon, who was a leader in so many ways, did not merit the same, graceful exit.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.