Our recent discussions concerning Alcor, preserving brains, and our continued efforts to prolong life have gotten me wondering why we are so obsessed with immortality. We live in a society that does not want to die, and we do everything in our power to keep ourselves running, perhaps for far longer than we were intended to. When do we draw the line and say “enough is enough” and allow our bodies to take their natural decline?
Western medicine treats death and dying with a sense of uneasiness. Older family members are sent off to die in nursing homes, and many Americans make the choice to die in hospitals, taking treatments until their very last breath. In the mean time, fields like cryonics are taking off; this allows humans to stop and restart life by restoring circulation and preserving brain function right when the heart stops and the brain dies. I am not sure how comfortable I am with this, and to an extent, how Western medicine approaches death. I feel like there is such a premium placed on sustaining life that there is not a deeply rooted ethical base in medicine on providing care when a cure is no longer possible. With such an emphasis on sustaining life, how are our physicians and health providers dealing with the black knight of the healthcare system – hospice care? I have encountered some healthcare professionals that have a potent fear of death, as they have never seen someone die prior to becoming a doctor or a nurse. What can our healthcare system, and to a larger extent, our culture, do to encourage them to have courageous, uncomfortable, and difficult conversations regarding death?
Coming from an Eastern background rooted in Buddhism, my grandparents believed that death is not the end of life, it is merely the end of the body we inhabit. They believed that the soul will transcend the temporal constraints of their bodies and be reborn again. (Again, this comes back to the time-old debate: one soul or many neurons? ) As a result of this, they believed that death could be beautiful, painless, graceful, and peaceful. Their belief systems were at odds with what they encountered here in America. I think they would have been horrified to read about Alcor and Sebastian Seung’s work, viewing it as an abomination of nature and science. Why do we insist on prolonging life at all costs? Is our own fear of death an important reason why we find it so difficult to help the dying and the bereaved? When a person is at the end of their life, how do we go about providing them with the best possible care and allowing them to feel like a whole person? After all, the way we care for our dying is an overall indicator of our quality of care and the extent of our compassion.