When my grandmother was dying we instructed the hospital staff to consider her a DNR - do not resuscitate. As with any advanced directive you'd create for yourself, we had to list specifically what this meant - what was considered a comfort measure vs life sustaining. Among the items not to use, as with our own "living wills", was a feeding tube.
It was clear my grandmother's body was shutting down. Her various systems were rapidly ceasing to do their jobs properly. We did approve a colostomy bag because the doctor assured us the intestinal blockage she had developed would be a painful way to die.
Then one day the staff came in to consult my uncle - my overly emotional, non-logical-on-a-good-day uncle. He had the tube put in. My grandmother survived an additional month in this state before the tube was removed and she finally passed. During that time she had brief periods of consciousness which were peppered with extreme degrees of hallucinations. She was very clearly beyond any grasp of reality. When she wasn't conscious she was moaning in agony.
Now, I must confess, I don't watch or read much in the way of news lately. By the time I have two seconds to myself all I want to do is escape to something not real, not depressing. I don't want to deal with the harsh reality of the world more than I have to. My exposure to the events around me come in the way of headlines and sound bytes - a method I normally detest but have fallen to for the moment. And so, with this news gathering (or lack thereof) habit of mine, I know very little of Terri Schiavo's background other than what I can grasp in brief glimpses - including that she's now dead.
Of course I do know what I think based on what I do hear and read in those fleeting moments. I do know that as a parent I'd grasp onto any sign that my child was still alive, still fighting to come out beyond some clouded mask of immobility, because no parent can fathom their child's death coming before their own. I don't blame Terri's family one bit for grasping at whatever they saw in her eyes or movements. However, I also know that the sounds and movements she did make were all within the realm of normal reflexes of the human body and don't necessarily indicate an attempt to communicate or interact. Since I'm neither a doctor nor intimate with Mrs. Schiavo's case I can't say which is her truth. I do know, though, that to say she suffered at this end assumes one possibility over another.
We are blessed to live in a time where medicine can save us from things that would formerly be the end to us. But sometimes, I think we take the miracle working a bit too tightly into our own hands out of fear. We forget that sometimes nature must take its course. That we can't save everyone indefinitely.
I had a dog growing up that developed a cancer so bad her stomach swelled and her body started to slowly shut-down. She was taken to the vet one morning to find out why our normally infallible, housebroken dog had developed a complete inability to control her bladder. She never came home.
My uncle's brain tumors are growing at an alarming rate. He's rapidly loosing his ability to walk on his own, to retain his balance and to remember how to find his own bathroom in a three room apartment. (The bathroom being one of those.) He's going to exist in this fashion until he slips into a coma and eventually passes. They'll offer a feeding tube. They'll offer ventilation. They'll work to sustain his body longer than it would if left on its own.
And we call ourselves humane for it.