Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
When we or a loved one is dying, it is imperative to determine if there is hope for recovery, to examine the common good and to consider traditional Catholic teachings when making decisions about end-of-life care, explained Franciscan Father Thomas Nairn during his Bishop Keane Institute lecture series presentation at Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton, Friday, July 20.
Father Nairn, minister provincial of the Sacred Heart Province of Franciscans headquartered in Missouri and former senior director of theology and ethics at the Catholic Health Association of the United States, offered advice so that one can be confident in making end-of-life decisions.
Reactions to imminent death are on a continuum with euthanasia at one end and the provision of all possible medical treatment on the other end, he said. In the middle is the Catholic viewpoint that life is a precious gift from God and that all have a duty to care for themselves.
With advancements in medical technology, he said, doctors always seem to find just one more “last-ditch” treatment to save someone. However, when someone has a terminal or debilitating illness, there comes a time when the caring thing to do is to stop trying to cure the individual and start caring for him in non-medical ways. In such instances, the priest noted, stopping medical care is not suicide; it is merely accepting death.
The same is true in incidences when the cure for an illness is perceived as worse than death, he said. For example, one of Father Nairn’s fellow Franciscan brothers had feared dialysis for his entire life, but when he developed end-stage kidney failure, that was the solution. He would become so upset that he could not sleep the night before the treatment, and he shook and sweated profusely on his way to the dialysis center. That reaction worsened, so he decided to stop the treatments.
Death is nothing to fear, Father Nairn said, because as Christians know life changes rather than ends. Such a belief comes into play when individuals face the end of their lives. For example, if a life-saving measure will only add two weeks to one’s life, a patient may decide not to receive the treatment. However, if it means the individual may be able to experience a significant upcoming event such as a grandchild’s graduation, the measure may be desirable.
Americans value autonomy, Father Nairn said, however, decisions regarding end-of-life care should be made as a family rather than as an individual because both are affected. Nevertheless, it is wrong to dismiss an individual’s desires.
For example, when Father Nairn’s grandmother was dying, doctors said amputating one of her legs might extend her life by a couple of weeks. His mother and aunt were left with the decision but never consulted his grandmother, even though she was lucid.
His grandmother did not know about the amputation until medical staff began prepping her for the surgery. She joked, “How will I look in the coffin with one leg?” In reality, she wanted to die and see Jesus, and the family respected her wish.
An advance directive such as a living will or the appointment of a health proxy opens the opportunity for patients and their loved ones to talk about their end-of-life issues before they occur, the priest said.
Caring for dying patients means being present with them — standing at their side, listening to their needs and helping them heal form their fears and anxiety, he explained.
“Curing is something that happens to the body. Healing is something that happens to the soul,” Father Nairn said.