On brain damage

Would it be in gentle reader’s best interest to be dead?

Don’t ask me. The question is for you this morning. Your case may be more complicated than mine. Perhaps the choice is between being dead and committing a monstrous crime, that will involve the death of others; whether this be a sin of commission, or omission. I find it useful to think about such situations myself; and to dream about them, as I have done. Nightmares they are, truly, but in this life, there are not only sweet dreams.

But what if you were in pain, perhaps terrible pain (I leave you to decide what “pain” means), and your prospect of getting out of it alive were naught, short of a miracle. Then what do you do?

The Christian teaching looks tough. The pain, however great, is yours to endure, and offer up to the Cross, till God himself pulls your life support system. His works differently from the tech support in hospitals. There are no legal appeals to turn it on or off. Sooner or later, everyone must die in the flesh; until when, choosing life is indicated, as a lawyer might put it.

A great deal of blather has been pumped into the issue of medical life support, thanks to the complexity of our machines. Even a healthy human requires air, water, food, and an environment within a certain temperature range, or he will die in the flesh. Remove these things from another in one’s care and, at least in the past, one would be facing a charge of murder. There is no hospital, of which I am aware, that has not the equipment to deliver these things, even to a comatose patient; and I have seen some under-equipped hospitals in my time.

The rest is negotiable. It is a little known fact that the Church does not, and never did insist on genuinely high-tech interventions, to keep a body nominally alive. She is there to provide the Sacraments to the gravely ill and dying. This, too, requires simple machinery, and must not be denied.

Comas, “vegetative states,” incurable conditions — these are nothing new. The neurological disorders are perhaps more a mystery to the doctors, yet all human diseases are finally a mystery to them. A doctor once described to me the mechanics of kidney failure. He was an honest man, and a specialist, who distinguished between what is obvious, and what isn’t. There was so much he could do with confidence; so much with less confidence; so much he could not do at all. The sort of doctor, I would say, who would never be involved with “killing a patient for his own good”; the sort who may already be rare in our medical faculties.

Brain degeneration is common to us all. One thing can be said for it: the condition is painless. If a man really is reduced to the intellectual state of a turnip, then he feels no pain, beyond that which a turnip might feel. If more, then one has misstated his condition. But practically, we do know that patients with serious brain damage are normally unaware of the fix they are in, for the very reason that they feel no pain.

It is the same for those immersed in the contemporary media of news and entertainment. The brain damage is cumulative, and sadly very real; but the customers are unaware of it.