In the early 60s, I worked at the Cleveland Clinic for a couple of years. I worked in the Department of Artificial Organs. My primary task was as an electronics technician.
Dr. Kolff was the famous inventor of the artificial kidney and kidney dialysis centers are all over the world now.
It was common for us to have a patient on life support using a variety of machines. Those machines were either standard or unique medical devices built in our lab. In any case, they were my responsibility.
These patients were mostly long term and over time we had gotten to know their families very well. At some point, nothing more could be done for the patient. In these cases, death was better than life.
Since I was in charge of the equipment, it was my job to turn it off at the appropriate time. This was always with the permission of family and the primary doctor. I turned the life-sustaining equipment off many times.
I well remember one night at about 2 am, we were sustaining a patient with some newly built equipment. The family allowed us to do our testing, knowing full well that the time was up and this equipment had no chance to save the patient. We had permission to use the loved one for our testing. This shows the respect that we had gained from the family.
The head doctor announced, “Let’s go home.” and that was it. I turned off the equipment and we stood in silent respect as the body went through the typical throes of death.
We brought in the family and they paid their last respects. It was interesting to see the immediate grief and shortly after the relief of knowing that the loved one was no longer suffering. The family had known for some time what the outcome was going to be. The healing started in an hour or two.
About a year later I was no longer working at the Cleveland Clinic. In the news came a shocking headline about a lawsuit for some medical facility stopping the life-sustaining procedures. I identified totally with the situation, as I had been there several times. I have total confidence that the medical team was operating in the best interests of the patient and family.
One family member just wasn’t able to accept the decision and filed a suit. Over the next few years, this issue was in the news often. Laws were passed, procedures for halting life were codified and everything became far more complicated than was necessary.
My former actions were now criminalized across the country. In a sense, I had been a serial murderer.
I never lost a second of sleep over this. I was just sorry that one person could be so unable to accept life and death, that the whole medical industry was altered.
What I did learn is that it is possible that I might find myself in a situation that wasn’t to my liking. I could decide that I no longer wished to live. I could commit suicide. Over 50 years later the right to die is still a huge issue.