I have had the privilege of spending the last two nights with my father as he is preparing for his journey into eternal life. This has been a chance for me to return thanks and give back to my parents, as I have been thinking of the many nights he and Mom stayed up with all of us when we were sick.
I have seen firsthand the love and care of all of the sisters, nurses and staff here at St. John’s Hospital hospice here in Springfield who care for him and administer his medications so he is not in pain nor alone in his journey. Their choice of living this life of compassionate care is a blessing to us all.
My father and so many others are fortunate that medicine today offers better alternatives for end-of-life care—alternatives that do not involve excessively burdensome interventions that have little chance of benefit. In fact, there is now a specific medical specialty devoted to the care and comfort of patients when cure has become impossible: it’s called palliative care. Good palliative care can offer tremendous solace and consolation to patients and families in the face of an inevitable death.
Good palliative care addresses the needs of the whole person—not just the biological aspects of disease or disability, but the psychological, social and spiritual needs of people in their final days. The work of palliative care in medicine is complemented by the hospice movement in nursing, which has made great advances in recent years in allowing patients to die in the comfort of their homes surrounded by loved ones, rather than in a hospital bed. With these approaches, the goals shift from curing the disease (which at some point becomes impossible) to caring for the person (which always remains possible). Good pain management, treatment of depression and anxiety, emotional and social support and spiritual care are among the building blocks of good palliative care. We understandably fear the effects of terminal diseases—pain, loss of functioning, isolation or becoming a burden to others. But with good palliative care, we need not fear that we will spend our last moments in intolerable pain, or alone, or subject to humiliating indignities.
While he was on this earth, our Lord Jesus Christ’s ministry was a ministry of healing. In imitation of Christ we are called to provide healing, comfort and care to the sick, especially those whose illnesses prove to be terminal. In addressing the end of life, medicine has made not only technological advances, but also advances in compassionate care, which we should embrace as Catholics. Our Catholic faith and morals do not require that we continue to pursue useless or excessively burdensome treatments that have little chance of benefit. However, Pope Francis has emphasized that the care we can provide for the dying can be of great benefit to the living: “Those who practice mercy,” said the pope, “do not fear death.”
Pope Saint John Paul II witnessed to this in his final days: he heroically bore the burdens of chronic Parkinson’s disease for years, but in his last days he decided to forgo further intensive medical treatments in a hospital, and instead lived out his final days in his apartment surrounded by caregivers and friends.
Medicine is built upon a long and venerable ethical tradition, stretching back to the Hippocratic Oath, which can be summarized: when possible to cure, always to care, never to kill. Palliative care is a merciful and compassionate modern means of achieving these worthy goals.
As Pope Francis has said, “There is no human life more sacred than another, just as there is no human life qualitatively more significant than another. The credibility of a health care system is not measured solely by efficiency, but above all by the attention and love given to the person, whose life is always sacred and inviolable.”
The Most Reverend Kevin W. Vann, Bishop of Orange