In 1947, after only two years as a registered nurse, I experienced my first brush with euthanasia.
The very word was foreign to me. The issue was not in the public conscience. Our medical ethics classes had never addressed the subject and euthanasia, like abortion, was not legal in any state. Nor was there a clamor to make it a legal procedure. It was simply unthinkable in the public view.
With two other registered nurses that November, I was assigned to nurse a cancer patient. I took the 3:00–11:00 pm shift.
Miss Ida was a well educated professional woman in her early 50s. She had undergone two mastectomies. It was determined nothing but palliative care could be done for her. She and her physician had been friends since childhood. He was aware of her mother’s prolonged battle with breast cancer, and had promised her he would not let her suffer and die as her mother had, many years before. She would be more comfortable at home with round-the-clock nursing care. It seemed a plausible decision.
At home in her own bed she had devoted nursing care. A few visitors came and she visited with them briefly but pain and discomfort made continuous sedation necessary. Each day, her physician friend brought a new vial of prepared sedation. We were instructed to give one cc of the liquid subcutaneously every three hours as needed. When we protested giving medication already prepared (instead of each nurse preparing the dose she would administer), he said he did not trust all nurses to prepare individual doses. Our professional competency put brusquely in question, we were silenced. In those days nurses did not question a physician’s decisions.
Miss Ida, despite the pain, would wait as long as she could endure before accepting sedation. Then she would apprehensively ask, “Are you sure that isn’t a bigger dose?” or “Can you give me your word this is the same as the last dose?” We were a little puzzled by the intense degree of her apprehension.
One evening her physician friend visited as usual. Just after he left, she remembered she wanted to ask him something. She sent me downstairs to call him back to her sickroom. Dr. Jones was on the living room phone. Not wishing to intrude, I waited, not quite out of hearing range, in the hall for him to finish his conversation. What I heard gave me a sense of horror I had never before experienced.
Among other things, I learned that Miss Ida’s only sibling was coming in a couple of days. The two on the phone apparently agreed they would allow her and her sibling to complete their visit, wait a day, and carry out their “plan.” Dr Jones said, yes, he would make sure a nurse did not see him substitute a different vial of sedative and would replace the earlier one “when it was over.” He left by a side door.
Suddenly Miss Ida’s apprehension about her medicine made sense. With my heart pounding in my chest I returned to Miss Ida. Mercifully, she had dropped off to sleep and I did not have to explain why her friend had not returned to answer her question.
Reaching home at midnight, I called Dr. Jones and resigned from the case. When he demanded an explanation, I told him I had overheard his phone conversation and could not be part of the plan. He was outraged. He threatened to get my license by testifying that I was not only incompetent, but refused a written order. I would never again work at the profession I loved. He forbade me to discuss what I had heard with any other nurse.
A week later, I learned Miss Ida had died after three hours of severe convulsions. The nurse who had replaced me had unknowingly given the fatal dose.
Now when I hear the blatant right-to-die rhetoric, I think of Miss Ida and her apprehensive query, “Are you certain that isn’t a bigger dose?” She was not ready to die. Before the state board of nurses or in a court of law, a nurse’s word against a physician’s word would have held no weight at all.
SIDEBAR: Educate yourself
For more information concerning the topic of euthanasia, visit the following web sites:
- American Life League: www.all.org
- International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: www.internationaltaskforce.org
- Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Declaration on Euthanasia: www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19800505_euthanasia_en.html