Friday, September 4, 2009

the la crosse wisconsin death panels

who would have thought what's turned into "pulling the plug on granny" and "obama death panels" all started in a hospital in lacrosse, wisconsin?

gundersen lutheran, the largest hospital in lacrosse, began discussing end-of-life issues with patients and their families in the mid-1980s:
"We'd turn to the family and say, 'We need your input. If your mother or father could speak now, what would they tell you?' And the family would say, 'If we only knew,' " said [hospital official Bud] Hammes, 59. "I could see the distress. They were going to have to live with themselves, with the worry about making a mistake.

This was unacceptable."
so the docs at gundersen then began counseling families about health care directives, living wills, and appointing a health care agent. they wanted folks to discuss these issues with their families when they were healthy.

it worked well. friends talked to friends and the idea spread. soon, folks in their 60's were drawing up directives to spare their children from making agonizing decisions when the time came. the community embraced the concept and does to this day.

gunderson brought this idea to some senators and congressmen, and they all agreed: this type of counseling should be available to everyone who wants it.

then came sarah palin's facebook page:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care.

Such a system is downright evil.
call your cousin in la crosse and ask her how evil a living will is.

or better yet, let me tell you.

without a living will, a health care directive, and a physician who was willing to sit down and discuss these things at length, the end of my partner steve's life could have been much, much different.

along the way there were plenty of major decisions that needed to be made, most at the drop of a hat: at 4:00 in the morning, in a tiny madison, wisconsin hospital room suddenly packed with nurses, doctors and orderlies in what resembled the marx brother's stateroom scene from a night at the opera; late on a breezy friday night, sitting in our milwaukee apartment, the windows wide open, laughing until our stomachs ached, having just finished off two pints of kopp's frozen custard; in the middle of a long holiday weekend, when that same physician was not as easily accessible and a doctor who was a total stranger to both of us was actually turning to me for guidance.

if you were a bystander, you would have thought i made those decisions, in the moment. i most certainly did not. these were things steve and i had discussed in great detail, many with his doctor. even if i wasn't prepared for every situation, i knew the answers to the questions.

shortly after steve's death, my dad suggested he and i have a long talk. he wanted to be sure father and son "were on the same page" about certain things. dad and i revisit the subject every so often, and it's clear to me what he wants. it isn't scary, it isn't morose, it isn't sad. it's empowering, and if anything – life affirming.

how many people will get to that crucial moment with a parent, a spouse, a grandparent, and simply have to guess.


  1. And now I am in tears. What that must have been like for you. I know that when my father had his fatal heart attack the EMS didn't find his DNR and they shocked him 8 times until he came back. He never did regain consciousness and so my mom had to make that decision. Of course we all supported her in it. With the advice of the doctors and having talked to every one of her 5 children, she was able to take him off life support with peace of mind, and as I type this, trying to imagine that choice, the tears come again.

    How can it be anything other than compassionate to discuss and follow the wishes of someone you love in their last days? To what end do we force someone to continue to live on life support?

    thanks for bringing this discussion down to a personal level. That is the only way we can see and truly understand this issue. And thanks for sharing a difficult time in your life.

  2. I, too, cried reading this. And remembering sitting with my father in a hospice 2 years ago as he slipped away, his body overcome with cancer. He made his wishes clear and I am so very grateful that he did so, because I don't know if my mother could have made some of the decisions that he had made for himself--no extraordinary means, do not resuscitate, etc. It allowed us to support him on his journey and not worry about if we had made the right choice. I hope, for all his conservatism, he would see the folly of the false alarmists.


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