Death Panels and Mom

My mother was a vibrant, spirited individual who died six months ago in the throes of late-stage Alzheimer's disease. Many years before, she had made it very clear that she did not want "unnecessary" life support systems, and I was fully aware of her wishes -- but according to Jewish law, one is not supposed to hasten another person's death.

During her two-year stay at a superb nursing home, I was regularly in touch with the nurses, the aides, and the attending physician, as well as the medical director. Their compassion and patience were extraordinary. As my mother's condition worsened, I wrote the medical director and asked, "The philosophical/ethical question that percolates constantly in my mind is, what is supposed to be done when someone is on hospice care? What is supposed to happen 'naturally' -- but what intervention is appropriate and ethical?"

I am not the only individual to have tackled these issues. In Time magazine, Roger Rosenblatt wrote of his mother's struggle with Alzheimer's; ironically, I found this piece among my mother's papers when I cleaned out her apartment. Dated 2001, it describes my mother's own fears about the disease. More recently, George Will penned a piece about his mother's demise. The latter is a gentler goodbye; Rosenblatt's piece reflects the frustration and deep sense of loss of a child as he sees his mother's memory erased.

It is an all-too-frequent combination of emotions of those who deal with this awful disease. And yet, when we see our gray-haired parents, we do our best to coax a little more from them -- our first teachers and fan club members. 

When the health care reform bill was still in its infancy, I read with dismay about the so-called death panels. I knew that Barack Obama was a vigorous proponent of late-stage abortions, which spoke to his detached view of life. Then I discovered that since there really were no "death panels" in the bill, Congress decided to eliminate the confusing language. Of course, if these panels were not in the bill in the first place, what was being deleted?

Therefore, that nagging feeling never quite went away. And so now I read Michael D. Tanner's piece entitled "Death Panels Were an Overblown Claim -- Until Now" and my earlier suspicions have been reinvigorated. Thus, we learn that Obama's pick for director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services "is romantic about the [British] National Health Service," where "every year, 50,000 surgeries are cancelled because patients become too sick on the waiting list to proceed." Thus, rationing and death panels hover at the borders of this health care reform law. Just because the term is not used doesn't mean the intent is not clear to anyone who can connect the dots.

It speaks to the hubris of the healthy, who shamelessly and without remorse relegate those they deem unworthy to fend for themselves. Near my mother's night table, I placed Psalm 71 as a reminder to myself of her humanity even as she was fading. It reads:

Cast me not off in the time of old age;

When my strength fails, forsake me not. 

For mine enemies speaking concerning me,

And they that watch for my soul take counsel together,

Saying: "God has forsaken him;

Pursue and take him; for there is none to deliver."

O God, be not far from me;

O my God, make haste to help me,

Let them be ashamed and consumed that are adversaries to my soul;

Let them be covered with reproach and confusion that seek my hurt.

Those last two lines should be directed to most of the appointees of this president as he consistently selects people whose moral compass is all about number-crunching instead of the personal, private end-of-life decisions that should be left to the individuals most intimately involved with a loved one. Sacredness does not go out of style just because we live in a technologically advanced society. Ethics still remain the bedrock of a decent society, and as this administration continues to erode these basic, fundamental ideas, we become a coarser and poorer society for it.

Eileen can be reached at
If you experience technical problems, please write to