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Paul Schratz - Life In The Schratz Lane

Dehydration death is still a thing

Voices Feb. 1, 2019

A new statement on hydration and nutrition from the B.C. and Yukon Bishops is among resources important for Catholics to consider in making medical decisions, writes Paul Schratz.  (Max Pixel photo)

In a country where you now can just kill off patients and assisted suicide accounts for four per cent of deaths on Vancouver Island, the notion of starving someone to death seems outdated and irrelevant.

But the B.C. and Yukon bishops’ statement on hydration and nutrition is as necessary today as ever. As Agnieszka Ruck reports on Page 2 this week, those who minister to the sick and dying welcome the statement, which makes clear withdrawing food and water in order to cause or hasten death is fundamentally wrong.

A case that The B.C. Catholic covered several years ago illustrates just how the morality of starving someone to death is unclear in the eyes of some people.

We told how a Vancouver Island man, a committed Catholic, went into Victoria General Hospital after something as seemingly innocuous as tripping and falling on his way to a Knights of Columbus meeting.

The man, 79, broke a bone in his neck and while in hospital recovering he had to be fed intravenously. Unfortunately he contracted pneumonia and his condition deteriorated. However he made it clear to those who knew him that he wanted to live and was looking forward to having a feeding tube inserted in his stomach, so hungry was he becoming.

Complicating matters, however, a “living will” he had written years earlier came to doctors’ attention. In it, he had stated he did not want to be kept alive by “extraordinary means.”

As an outspoken advocate for life and fully committed to Catholic teachings on life-sustaining measures like food and water, the patient naturally assumed he would be given food and hydration.

But despite assurances that a feeding tube was coming, he never received it. Without food he became weaker and more agitated, and at one point he pulled out the IV that was delivering fluids to his increasingly frail body.

One nurse replied, “Well, we won’t be putting that back in.” And they didn’t.

Because of the living will, all efforts to keep him alive stopped. His status was downgraded to “comfort care,” antibiotics for his pneumonia were stopped, and he died after more than two weeks without food and four days without water.

A friend of his noted the marks left by restraints on his wrists resembled nails in the hands of Christ and compared his dehydration to Christ’s crying out, “I thirst.”

The B.C. and Yukon bishops’ statement is a welcome addition to the Catholic educational materials available to help individuals develop an advance care plan that respects their Catholic faith and the dignity and sanctity of life. These resources are important not just for you but also your loved ones who might be inclined to make medical decisions on your behalf that aren’t consistent with your faith.

As a 2007 Vatican document on artificial nutrition and hydration states, every patient is “a person with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means.”

In short, it’s essential that hospitals and medical professionals ensure that patients don’t die from intentional dehydration or starvation. For more information, contact your priest, Catholic hospital chaplain, or Catholic Health Association of British Columbia at chabc.bc.ca.