April 4th, 2005.

Where life ends.

The other day a couple of friends and I were discussing the recent Terri Schiavo end-of-life case. As Christians, they said that in disconnecting her feed tube the doctors and courts were ‘playing God’ and could, therefore, be judged for murdering Schiavo who has been in a persistent vegetative state for many years. The case has, of course, sparked many discussions around the world as people debate the moral issues of the situation, and on a personal level, it has once again raised questions in my own mind about life and death.

After my Granddad died in January I thought about the subject of death for a while much as we all do when a loved one passes away. He was in very good health right up to his death, which could be considered quite sudden for a person of his age. Since then my Grandmother has spent time in hospital as her health declines at a far more drawn outpace. Perhaps unsurprisingly this has to lead me to think about the relationship between life and death, but moreover how the line between the two seems to have become smudged with the ‘advancements’ of modern medicine and medical technology.

When I was a kid my great grandmother died of ‘old age.’ I wasn’t affected. I only knew her as the funny old lady who lived in London and who talked to the newsreaders on TV. I don’t even remember the time she died, but I do know that back then it wasn’t uncommon for a death certificate to list the cause of death as ‘old age.’

Today doctors can no longer dismiss a death as being purely a symptom of ‘old age,’ there has to be a medical reason. So instead my great grandmother would have been rushed off to the hospital and very probably administered life-saving measures and medicines to keep her ticking over. This is all well and good of course, but at what point do we accept that life does come to an end? At what point should medical science step aside and let death take us or the people we love?

Visiting my Grandmother always leaves me feeling a little sad because she isn’t the lady I remember. Yogi, as she is affectionately known in our family, had a sweet tooth and was always full of chatter and love. Today she lives her life attached to machines that feed her pure oxygen and fluids. She is weak and unable to eat a ‘proper’ meal, so most of the time she drinks energy drinks that look more like an unpleasant smoothie. Her days at home are spent sat in a chair not watching a TV that blares in the corner of her living room as she waits for my Mom or my Uncle to visit her.

The hospital she is in at the moment is nice enough, the staff are friendly and the facility seems fine. But it feels like death's waiting room, a place where life has already come to an end and is now just a word rather than a state of being.

‘Yogi’ has said on many occasions now that she’s “ready to go” and join Granddad again. However, my Uncle Paul wants the hospital to administer ‘life-saving measures’ should she become desperately ill. It’s his mother of course, and I completely understand that he doesn’t want to lose her, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of a life they would be saving?

I find myself thinking that should I ever get to that age I don’t think I would be content to spend the final years of my life hooked up to machines and watching the clouds pass in the window next to my hospital bed. Like anyone I want to live a full life right to the end, but at what point should one step aside and let nature take its course?

Terri Schiavo was kept alive by machines, machines that weren’t around once. In previous years she would have died shortly after the fall that left her in a persistent vegetative state. While my Christian friends argue that it’s ‘playing God’ to switch off her feed tube, I retort by suggesting that it was ‘playing God’ to intervene so dramatically in the first place, though of course, I understand the impetus that drives us to do so.

One day we’ll find a cure for cancer, a cure indeed for many of the diseases that take us to the next place after here. So I am left wondering; at what point should medical science draw the line between prolonging life and prolonging death?