A Christian Guide to Confronting End of Life Issues

Abraham Verghese, M.D., recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled, "Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan." Dr. Verghese pointed out that doctors are literally losing touch with their patients because they are looking at test results instead of at the patient him or herself. In effect, the patient becomes an "ipatient," while the "real patient feels neglected." The patient is looked at from the perspective of their disease or ailment or symptoms and not as being fully human.

Similarly, we treat Jesus the same: Even though we talk about Jesus as being "fully human" and "fully divine," most of us concentrate on the fully divine part, the "iSavior" as it were. We talk about the miracles Jesus performed or the various parables he told. We don't really talk about Jesus as the fully human person who cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is the same cry I recently heard from the son of a woman who was dying and have heard for years from patients and family members who are dealing with a poor prognosis, new diagnosis, the death of a loved one or one who continues to live when death might be a blessing.

We also need to look at ourselves as being fully human because a part of being human is the recognition that we will one day die. There is a 100 percent death rate in our world. And yet, there is silence on the issues that surround people as they near death. We need to accept ourselves as unique human beings who have fears and concerns about living and about dying. And we need to begin to have conversations about our mortality while we are still healthy.

We baby boomers are dealing with parents who are having health problems and we often end up having to make decisions that are uninformed and more painful to make because neither our parents nor we wanted to face the fact that our parents would, one day, die. It is easier not to talk about these things, and yet, once we are confronted with them for a loved one, we want to ensure that the same thing doesn't happen to us. More families, after watching their loved one die in the intensive care unit and not knowing what their loved one's wishes were, came to me asking me to help them prepare so that they would not have to go through this same very painful scenario again.

I believe that the greatest gift we can give to our loved ones is letting them know what our wishes are as to how we want our bodies treated as we near the end of our life. Each person's wishes are unique, so we need to tell those who love and care about us what our wishes are while we are still healthy. Conversations need to happen before we are wheeled into the ER, when it is too late to have "those" conversations.

I will be using this column to educate people so that we can have end of life discussions while we are still healthy. I will include theological and sociological as well as biblical ways to look at and talk about sickness and end of life issues. I will also include various "hot button issues" such as the use or withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration, euthanasia and physician aid in dying. Further, I will write about the dying process, "do not resuscitate" orders, use of pain medications, reasons to have a completed health care proxy form and other topics that will hopefully spur you to confront your own fears and concerns about dying and death, so that you will feel more comfortable talking about these issues. My hope is that after you read my posting, you will be able to use it to open the door to conversations with your loved ones about what you would want done with your body as you approach the end of your life.

I look forward to your comments on my postings and hope that we can engage in a meaningful dialogue around our own "denial of death."