01-04-2011 - Traces, n. 4



Some nurses in Québec spoke in front of the Select Committee on Dying with Dignity. They didn't speak of bioethics, but threw a wrench in the works. "The problem isn't 'choosing,' but looking life in the face." Which means being free.


His patient wanted to die. Julien remembers well: an angry, hopeless woman who repeatedly told him how unfair it was to see others leave, to see their suffering end, while she was forced to stay there. "If I could ask for euthanasia, I wouldn't think twice," she told him. A few days passed, and when Julien returned to her room, he was shocked when the woman said, "How beautiful life is." He asked if she was crazy, and was told no, that she'd been visited by a brother she hadn't seen for years.
"I want to be for my patients what the brother of my patient was for her." Julien Leduc simply said this when he found himself before the lawmakers. He is a nurse, and together with a group of colleagues he asked to speak to the special commission of the Québec National Assembly, which is working on legalizing assisted suicide. The "Dying with Dignity" Committee is attempting to use protocol guidelines to introduce the practice of euthanasia, which, at the moment, is a crime in Canada. First, an effort was made to decriminalize it with a proposed bill in the House of Commons. When that was rejected, the province of Québec attempted this new route; the work of the Committee began in December 2008, and hearings continue still today.
On February 4th, several nurses took their turns in front of the Committee. Speaking along with Julien was Cristina, who has been working in the operating room at Jewish General Hospital of Montréal for 8 years, but has been in this profession for 27. "Think of how many patients I've met," she told the Committee. "None of them ever asked me to die. But many were desperate and many were suffering. What I've learned is that they look at themselves with the eyes with which we look at them." It's the alternative of each day, spare and radical: "I can enter the room and think, 'The patient is still here; he still hasn't died.' Or, I can tell him, 'Let's begin this day together.' Our work is to help patients face the reality of their lives." And this is why she went before the representatives, "to defend the reasons I chose to be a nurse."
A few days before the hearing, she met a cancer patient of hers whom she hadn't seen for four months. The woman had lost weight and showed signs of chemotherapy treatment. "Do you know what, Cristina? I want to live another year…" "Me too," the nurse answered. And she repeated it to the lawmakers. "We're all in the same condition. Neither my patients nor I know what will happen. But because of her illness, she has a greater awareness than I do, which makes her live the present in a different way. Reality asks for a change, of patients and of us."
She told the Committee about the many sick patients she has seen change in these years of work: she's seen them go toward death with a freedom that transformed the life of those alongside them–relatives, physicians, nurses, and roommates. "As you well know," she continued, "a patient who is about to die or lose autonomy passes through the five phases of Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance." They don't happen in the patient in a given order; they happen in each person at different times and in different ways. "I reminded the Committee because we're asked to accompany the patients in the circumstance and the phase they find themselves in, because we don't know how and when they can change."
The reactions of the lawmakers were immediate, with questions and provocations all related to the problem of freedom: each person's freedom in regard to his or her life must be affirmed. Cristina answered that it was true, that "euthanasia is a problem of freedom." But "freedom isn't to choose to live or die. I've seen that the experience of freedom is being able to look life in the face, deep down, being able to live what happens to us and that we don't choose. Only in this way do we truly know life and ourselves. But nobody can do this alone." This is why the Committee's proposal questions the very meaning of her work.
"Before those representatives," she recounts, "I rediscovered that the Christian gaze on life responds to the human being totally; it doesn't reduce life and experience to our categories. Proposing euthanasia, instead, blocks the process of freedom in the face of circumstances. It means blocking knowledge of life and of themselves. Introducing euthanasia is a reduction of freedom." This is what she told the lawmakers. In the face of their questions, she asked them something, too: "What do you hope for your country? That it be made up of half-humans? Or truly free men and women, in the face of life and death?"
That day, some friends heard the live radio broadcast. Then they called Cristina, enthusiastic: "It was powerful!" But they weren't on fire about the bioethics debate. "I, too, want the freedom in the face of life that you spoke about," one of them told her. That freedom is a question of life and death, whether you're sick or healthy. It is knowing the depth of every instant–or else you die even without dying.