Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Whose Life is it Anyway?" Film Shows - How Far We've Come - in Some Ways

The other day, browsing on Xfinity for something to watch in the "Free Movies" category, I came across the 1981 film, "Whose Life is it Anyway?" starring Richard Dreyfus.

The film told the story of a promising young sculptor who was severely injured in a sportscar vs. semi-truck accident. Dreyfus' character suffered a high cervical spinal cord transsetion, and was left a quadriplegic. Moreover, his internal bleeding resulted in a bilateral nephrectomy - so he had no kidney function at all and was placed on regular hemodialysis.

After the gravity of his situation sunk in, the sculptor asked to have no further treatment - and without dialysis, he would certainly die.

The request spawned an enormous debate among hospital personnel, finally resulting in a private trial - and ultimately, we assume, in the sculptor getting his wish.

It was interesting to see how our medical culture has changed. The scenes depicting doctors smoking in the lounge were obsolete, of course. Though I remember working to change the smoking policy at Swedish/Ballard in the late '80s. Until that time, smoking was common in most hospitals - among patients and personnel. Imagine!

"Whose Life is it Anyway?" was highly "sanitized." Dreyfus' character didn't look like any quadriplegic I've known: no contractures, no muscle atrophy, no visible surgical scars. 

But his deep sigh when a dialysis treatment started was highly recognizable. I so remember this with Steve; he hated "being on the hose," although he clearly valued the fact that dialysis kept him alive.

I remember seeing a booklet at the Northwest Kidney Centers - entitled "When It's Time to Stop Dialysis." I never read it; we simply weren't "there."

But, how wonderful it is that a patient wouldn't have to put up a fight to end treatment - at least not with the court. We now see withdrawal of treatment as a patient's right.

Steve and I had spoken many times about "not letting him suffer." When it's time to die, I believe a person knows this at a very deep level. I suspect that's what Steve was conveying when he said, "Wasn't I supposed to die yesterday?" - the day before he actually died.

End of life issues will always be charged, tough issues - for patients, for families, for society in general. I'm personally glad we've made some progress in this area since the Dreyfus film. It's interesting to watch; you might put it on your list.

Take care,
Linda Gromko, MD

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