In our short procedure unit, we sometimes take nursing home patients who are in need of a blood transfusion. Nursing homes do not store blood so rather than admit the patient for an overnight stay at the hospital, which is very costly, they will come to our SPU to get their blood. The patients are nearly always ventilator dependent and in what's described as a persistent vegetative state. The patient we had today was someone who was not much older than me. The patient had suffered anoxia, which is a lack of oxygen to the brain, and that's how she came to be this way. Through a tracheotomy, the ventilator breathed for her and she seemed not to notice anything. It was a heartbreaking scene to behold. Nonetheless, we cared for the patient and at the conclusion of the transfusions, the ambulance arrived to take her back to the skilled nursing facility. I wondered if she had family. I wondered if she was "locked in" meaning she sees, hears and understands everything but is incapable of response.
I will confess that there was a time in my life when I would have wanted my family to withdraw support if ever I wound up like this patient. I know better, and now my fear is that in some misguided effort to spare me of any suffering, they would do to me what Terri Schiavo's husband did to her. I don't fear for myself in that case, but for them. And so it's been a difficult discussion with some people in my family that should, God forbid, I suffer some catastrophic cerebral event, I would want them to do only what is acceptable in the eyes of God and His Church.
I feel I have made some spiritual progress if my greater concern is offending God, rather than fearing total incapacitation like the patient today. I'm also shocked at the reaction that people who, on the surface, are very devout and committed Catholic have when I raise this topic.
It is very difficult to watch people suffer, particularly people we love. Our Blessed Mother bore witness to the terrible punishment her innocent Son suffered at Calvary. It's a natural thing to have an aversion to watching a loved one endure suffering, but hopefully, should we find ourselves in that position, we can draw strength from Mary, who never abandoned Jesus, though it tore her heart to pieces to watch Him hang from the cross.