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Catholic Vancouver Feb. 1, 2019

Hospital chaplains welcome statement on care of dying

By Agnieszka Ruck

Spiritual care worker Sister Cecilia Cham, shown with Father Jude Iloghalu, says a new letter on hydration and nutrition for the dying will be a helpful resource for families, health care workers, and chaplains. (B.C. Catholic file photo)  

Hospital chaplains in Vancouver are welcoming a statement from B.C. and Yukon bishops on the need to provide food and water for the ill and dying.

“On the last days, when they are about to go, I have had a few people ask if they should keep on feeding” a family member on their death bed, said Deacon Richard Podgurski, who visits hospitals on the North Shore.

He answers these occasional questions with compassion and defers actual advice on nutrition and hydration to the nurses and doctors on staff. But the moral answer to this difficult issue is one he is looking forward to reading from Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, and the six other bishops who signed a new letter on the issue.

“Sooner or later everybody will be facing this question,” Deacon Podgurski said. The letter is “certainly helpful, not only for me, but also anybody who looks after people in those difficult situations.”

The Statement on Hydration and Nutrition, released Feb. 1, says “under all ordinary circumstances, we should always provide patients with food and water,” whether they can feed themselves, or need help to eat from nurses, feeding tubes, or other medical assistance.

“Being helped by others to eat and drink is a normal part of the human experience, one that starts for all of us when we are babies and continues for many of us when we are disabled, sick, or dying. Preparing and serving food, as well as eating with others, are important to our human relationships and express mutual trust. They are a sign of love and an affirmation of life.”

However, the bishops list a few difficult scenarios in which it can be morally permissible to stop providing food or water to patients. A patient’s body may lose the ability to absorb nutrition from food, for example, or may suffer significant complications such as chronic vomiting or uncontrollable infections.

“Withdrawing food and/or water in such circumstances is not a matter of starving or dehydrating a person. Rather, we are accepting that the patient can no longer benefit from them and that continuing them may cause harm.”

While the bishops describe this action as morally permissible, they maintain that “in all cases, it is wrong to use the removal of food and water in any form intentionally to cause or hasten a person’s death. This is a form of euthanasia … and must be rejected as gravely immoral.”

The bottom line, they say, is that as long as a patient benefits from food and water, they should have it.

Sister Cecilia Cham, FdCC, a spiritual care worker at Vancouver General Hospital, has spent the last 27 years visiting the recovering, the very ill, and the dying.

She said patients need “nutrition: body and soul.” In her ministry, that has meant many things, from dissolving a consecrated host in a spoonful of water to offer Communion to someone who has difficulty chewing, to holding an ice cube to the lips of someone who can no longer swallow.

Some of Sister Cham’s most difficult visits are to patients who have signs posted on their room doors by medical staff showing they are unable to receive food or water. “I feel very upset to see them like that.”

In her 27 years of experience, she has internalized Catholic teaching on the subject, but believes the letter can be a resource for Catholic families, health care workers, and chaplains looking for a moral answer to this challenging issue.

The letter was signed by Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, Victoria Bishop Gary Gordon, Prince George Bishop Stephen Jensen, Nelson Bishop Greg Bittman, Kamloops Bishop Joseph Phuong Nguyen, New Westminster Eparch Ken Nowakowski, and Whitehorse Bishop Hector Vila.