What happens when a patient says, 'Doc, help me die'

Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT) March 20, 2018

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This piece is the third part of a CNN Opinion series, "What it's like to be me," which explores the personal struggles Americans face at a time of profound social change. E. Wesley Ely is a physician and the Grant. W. Liddle Professor of Medicine and Critical Care at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee Valley VA GRECC, and the founder of the Vanderbilt ICU Delirium and Cognitive Impairment Study Group. The views expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)"But can't you help me die, Doc?"

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.
E. Wes Ely
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.
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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.
    While I cherish those years and the formation that grueling work provided, I was determined to do something different with my life. Mom told me that Dad had loved math and science, and she taught literature. So I figured it must come naturally for me to split the difference and do something with people, science and the arts. To me, that meant medicine.
    Dr. Wes Ely assessing a patient in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Vanderbilt.
    I remember our first big assignment in sixth grade was to write a research paper on what we would be when we grew up. I rode my beat-up bicycle to the local library and began reading about how to become a physician: What was the process and what would it all mean? I walked out of the library that day having spent most of my time reading a long medical essay about truth. The author insisted that to be a physician, one has constantly to seek truth about the patient's diagnosis, the best treatment, and the best way to serve each and every person. What I learned from the essay was that truth doesn't change depending on our ability to stomach it. As I progressed through Jesuit high school and Tulane, this became a common theme in my pursuit of a life as a doctor: "Wrong is wrong even if everybody is wrong. Right is right even if nobody is right." Numerous people are credited with some version of this quote, from actors to philosophers to theologians. That sense of truth drove my study and training and my realization that each person's life has value beyond measure.
    I knew long before I met Paul that I couldn't kill another person just because he or she wanted me to, but I still had to find a way to respond to Paul's request to die.