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Handbook for Mortals : Forgoing Medical Treatment

Stopping treatment

Sometimes people feel that if they stop a treatment such as a feeding tube or breathing machine, then they will have "killed" their loved one. The law does not see stopping these procedures as raising any questions of homicide or suicide. You are under no legal obligation as an adult to take any medical care (unless your disease is a risk to others). The natural progression of the disease is what prevents you from eating, drinking, or breathing normally. Stopping treatments that replace these natural functions only allows the disease to follow its natural course. Even if these treatments have been in place for months or years, it is all right to stop them and allow death to occur.

A Case Study

Mr. G. was a 99-year old concentration camp survivor with stomach cancer, admitted to an inpatient hospice for end of life care. Mrs. G, 94 years old, stayed with him day and night, and often wondered aloud how she would live without him. As the days passed, Mr. G. ate less and less, despite his wife's cajoling him to "eat to keep up his strength." Still, Mr. and Mrs. G. had agreed that he did not want a feeding tube, as that would not do anything to cure or treat his cancer.

When Mr. G became comatose, his daughter and grandson were called from their home hundreds of miles away. Mr. G.'s grandson stayed with him for a while, then left the room and tearfully insisted that the doctor put in a feeding tube to "give him a few more days." The doctor explained that tube feeding might give Mr. G "a few more days" but would more likely cause pain from having the tube in place, diarrhea from liquid feedings that Mr. G.'s stomach and intestines could no longer tolerate, and shortness of breath from fluid build-up.

Mr. G.'s grandson admitted that he was not ready for his grandfather to die. He found it hard to believe that artificial feedings would not strengthen Mr. G. Mr. G.'s daughter reminded her son of how peaceful Mr. G looked. She compared that to having pain, diarrhea, and shortness of breath. Although Mr. G.'s grandson still did not want his grandfather to die, he did not want him to have pain or other discomfort. No feeding tube was placed. Mr. G. died the next day, peacefully, surrounded by his family


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