My 54-year-old patient was alone in the intensive care unit, with no family or friends in his life. He slumped in his bed, gasping, staring up at me. Admitted with lung fibrosis and pneumonia, he had scars and infection aggressively replacing his airways, despite our best treatments.
As a newly minted doctor years ago, my mind was usually occupied with beeps and buzzers providing me technical information to help calculate choices about patients’ care. Having developed gray hair over many years at the bedside, my first priority is now more straightforward: to hear the voices of the vulnerable people looking up at me from their bed. That is what I try to do as a physician, including, of course, what they tell me in the silences.
I pulled a chair next to his bed so we could talk at eye level. His face was blank. “I want euthanasia. I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point of living longer? I’m just wasted space.”
I felt nauseated. The illegality of euthanasia was not what ran through my mind. Instead I thought about how Paul had lost his sense of personhood. I thought about how I had chosen to become a doctor in the first place.
I chose medicine as my calling after a childhood spent in the Deep South: Shreveport, Louisiana. My mother taught English there after my father, an engineer, had left her for another woman. I remember it was so hot that my siblings and I would fry eggs on the sidewalk. No joke. On most days, we’d walk to a nearby bayou and catch baby alligators for fun and fill up coolers with crawfish for dinner. That last part is important because we had no money at all. Dad wouldn’t pay anything to Mom, who didn’t make much as a teacher. So I started working at the farm of a man who wanted to marry my mother. I worked 14-hour days from about five in the morning doing square bales of hay until seven at night picking vegetables and running the country store.