Ruth and Bernice were unmarried sisters and members of a church I used to serve. They were in their 80’s when I knew them and had lived together almost their entire lives. The only time they did not live in the same house was in World War II, when Ruth was in Europe serving as an army nurse, and now, in their last years, when Bernice was in a care center. Bernice was already in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease when I came to that church, so I never heard her speak or even saw her out of bed. Death would have been a great blessing for Bernice, but death would not come.
One of the reasons death would not come, was that whenever Bernice got sick, she would be rushed to the hospital by ambulance and everything would be done to make her better. And she would get better, or, I should say, her body was kept alive; only to go back to laying in bed in the nursing home with that vacant stare. Ruth could not understand this. She had asked time and again that nature be allowed to take its course and that Bernice be allowed to die. She wasn’t asking that Bernice be given an injection to make her die, and she wasn’t asking that food and water be withheld. Ruth simply said, “My sister has lived a good life and she is ready to die. When she gets pneumonia, can’t the disease just take its course and mercifully end her life? It is time, can’t you see? I’m her only living relative, and I know this would be her request. I was a nurse all my life, and this is how we used to do things. Why can’t someone just use some common sense here?”
“Well,” said the nursing home administrator, “it is not our decision. She is under the care of a doctor, and we cannot go against the doctor’s orders.”
“Yes,” said the doctor, “I know how it was years ago, and it was better then. But it isn’t that way anymore, and if I just let someone die, I could be sued. Yes, I know you wouldn’t do that, Ruth. But that is what everyone says, and then they change their minds, and I’m in court.”
“We’re sorry,” said the hospital administrator, “we understand your request, and we do have a policy that allows us to sometimes let people die, but your sister does not meet the requirements. We have our rules and the insurance companies have their rules and Medicare has its rules and the doctors’ insurance companies have their rules and the state has its rules. So we’re sorry, Ruth, but our hands are tied.”
I’m not saying this is how it always is. This was years ago and the law is always changing, and even then, different people had different experiences. But this was Ruth’s experience. Law was piled upon law, and regulation upon regulation, and there were policies and more policies. Sometimes the law did provide needed clarification and consistency and protection, but much of it was in place only to guard against litigation. Because of the fear of litigation, the primary concern all the way down the line became not to provide the best and most sensible care, but to make sure no one got sued.
John Adams once said that a good society depends on the moral and upright character of it citizens, and if the people lack that, no number of laws can maintain peace and order. For Ruth and Bernice, the laws that intended to help and protect people became not a help, but a burden.
UNC professor and columnist Mike Adams tells a different kind of story. Adams never knew his grandmother. She died of cancer in 1962 just before he was born. He writes of her death: “Grandma Nell’s death at the age of 48 was probably the result of a mistake by a physician who removed a cancerous organ during a previous surgery. Later, when another organ was consumed by cancer, the doctor was consumed by guilt. He concluded that he should have also removed that other organ during the previous surgery and thus, would have saved her life. After it was too late, he tearfully apologized at grandma’s bedside.” He would not have had to do that. No one would have known the difference. But, Adams says, “That was back when doctors were able to speak honestly to their patients instead of guarding carefully everything they said because they had to worry about litigation.”
Grandma Nell, however, had no intention of suing anybody. Learning that she would die at the age of 48 was devastating news, and she had to face her own personal loss and despair. But because she was a person of faith, and because the doctor was a good doctor who simply made what turned out to be a bad call, she had no desire to add to the doctor’s misery. She wanted to make sure that the doctor was all right, and knew that he was forgiven. During the advanced stages of her illness, she even wrote him an uplifting letter that he kept in his office desk for the rest of his career. When Nell died, the doctor cancelled his appointments and went to the funeral. There he told Nell’s daughter, Mike Adams’ mother, that for years as a doctor he had to give bad news and console patients, but that Nell Myers was the only patient who ever tried to console him. He said that Nell’s good will and forgiveness changed his whole life and career.
Mike Adams said that his mother was also changed by the way her mother died with such dignity and forgiveness and courage. She had been tempted to respond to the tragedy with anger and self-pity, but when she heard the doctor’s tearful account of Nell’s loving treatment of him, she too was changed. She decided that if her mother’s faith could give her that kind of strength in the face of adversity, that in itself was conclusive proof of the power of the Almighty. She too became a believer in God and decided that her mother’s death would inspire her to that same kind of love and good will and service to others. And Mike Adams remembered his mother as one who was always ready to serve others– collecting groceries for the needy, serving at church, writing to prisoners, collecting money for various charities, etc. (continued…)
Isaiah 28:13 — So then, the word of the Lord to them will become: Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there— so that as they go they will fall backward; they will be injured and snared and captured.
Psalm 119:34 — Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.
Psalm 40:8 — I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.
O Lord, give us more charity, more self-denial, more likeness to you. Teach us to sacrifice our comforts to others, and our likings for the sake of doing good. Make us kindly in thought, gentle in word, generous in deed. Teach us that it is better to give than to receive; better to forget ourselves than to put ourselves forward; better to minister than to be ministered to. And to you, the God of love, be glory and praise forever. Amen.
–Henry Alford (1810-1871), Dean of Canterbury Cathedral
Prayer of a Chinese woman, recently converted to Christianity:
We are going home to many who cannot read. So, Lord, make us to be Bibles so that whose who cannot read the book can read it in us.