Shared Spirit: Pulling the Plug

Shared Spirit: Pulling the Plug

Moderated by Rachel Stein /

Some people shudder at the thought of frequenting hospitals. But for me, spending time within that framework has always been my way of giving, my heart naturally gravitating toward people in need of TLC because of medical issues. Perhaps growing up with a special needs brother who was in and out of hospitals was G-d’s way of grooming me to help out in this way.

My name is Becky. I work full time as a speech pathologist, and I volunteer weekly in a hospital.

Some visits rev me up, and I feel like I accomplished the world by cheering up someone in need. Other times, the bleakness of the patient’s situation surrounds me like a cloud, and I find it difficult to dispel the heaviness.

I have learned so much from the people I visit. They often teach me incredible life lessons and certainly remind me of a gift I no longer take for granted: my health. With that gift come priceless opportunities, including the ability to imbue meaning into my days.

The memory of one recent visit gives me no rest. The dialogue went along these lines.

“Good morning, Jerry. How are you feeling today?”

Stricken by ALS, Jerry was paralyzed, only able to shift his eyes. Using a special computer, Jerry “spoke” using eye movement.

“I’ve made a decision.”

I waited.

“I’ve decided to die. They’re going to pull the plug later today.”

I gasped, my eyes filling and spilling over. What could I say? What should I do?

“Jerry, have you spoken to a rabbi? Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

“Yup, I’m sure. There is no value in my life like this, and no rabbi can tell me differently. I can’t take it anymore. I’m a prisoner in my own body.”

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “May G-d give you peace on your journey.”

I left the room, head bowed, conflicting thoughts swirling through my mind. I felt complicit in murder. Should I call a rabbi in spite of Jerry’s wishes?

As a religious Jew, I know life-and-death decisions are not in our hands. We are compelled to seek rabbinical guidance and are not allowed to exercise free choice. Every moment of life is precious and sacred, invested within us by G-d. It is up to Him and only Him to bestow life and to terminate it.

He created each of us with a unique mission, so even if we don’t understand the value of lying in bed, helpless and suffering, there must be purpose. We are mortal with limited understanding. G-d who knows and sees all has a plan, and we bow our heads in deference to His omniscience.

Euthanasia, or legalized murder, is frightening. Family and medical personnel decide when a life is no longer worth living.

Besides the religious objections, there are logical challenges. How many times has someone woken from a coma even after everyone has given up hope? During the past several years there were two instances in our own community in which the patients’ organs were shutting down and we were prepared for the worst. In a remarkable display of divine providence, both people experienced a full recovery.

Just imagine if the plugs had been pulled in order to benefit people who had a fighting chance. After all, we’ve heard the drill. Life support is costly and shouldn’t be wasted on someone who’s going to die anyway. And, we are told, why should the patient suffer longer? Isn’t it an act of kindness to remove his torment?

But if the patient could speak, wouldn’t he jump at the chance to live?

I know ALS is different. At this time, it is a death sentence. But then I return to my earlier premise that every moment of life has inestimable value, and it is not within our jurisdiction to decide how these dilemmas should be resolved.

I called a rabbi to speak to Jerry. A wall of obstinate silence was Jerry’s response to the intervention. His decision was final, and he was not interested in being dissuaded.

Jerry, I would never judge you, and I pray never to be in your predicament. I hope you have found peace.

The picture of Jerry continues to flicker in my mind and heart, so I turn to you, fellow readers. Can you share your feelings and tell me what you would have done in my place?

Please send your responses by Monday, July 11, for inclusion in the next column. I look forward to hearing from you.

Shared Spirit is a column in which people write in to share personal dilemmas. Readers are encouraged to assist by offering meaningful advice.

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