Hospice, Morphine and Preparing for Traditional Catholic Death

The first Hospice was started by the Catholic Sisters of Charity in London England in 1905 to help people who did not have a place to die.  It was called St. Joseph’s hospice because St. Joseph is the patron of the dying.  I think the sisters who founded it came from Ireland where there was a similar place.  So it is wonderful to have help with terminally ill patients in their last days.

death-columbus-bedHospice offers support to people who would like to die at home or die at one of their homes.  They give medical advice and a visiting nurse comes once a week.  You can call them 24 hours a day to get advice.  But you still have to do almost all of the taking care of the sick person in all the day to day activities.  Many think Hospice will do everything which is not true.

If you die at home and are signed up with Hospice, you just call them when the person has died and they do the pronouncement of death.  This avoids the need to call the paramedics, who are obliged by law in many places, to do CPR on any person who dies at home.  It also avoids having to have an autopsy with the coroner (sheriff Department).  If someone dies suddenly at home you usually need an autopsy to rule out the possibility of any foul play.

All this said, Hospice has helped a lot of people.  But recently it is changing to become an accomplice with Euthanasia.  I say this because of the many many people I have done the funerals for and of whom I have visited in their homes under the supervision of Hospice.

An example of this is when we get the clergy record with the funeral, the cause of death  put down is Alzheimer.  Alzheimer does not kill anyone.  Or we will see pneumonia.  If you have pneumonia, you need to go to the hospital to get antibiotics, not put on hospice to die.

crespi_death_of_St_JosephWhat happens many times is that the family is told that the patient should not drink or eat because they will aspirate.  That means, food or liquids will go into their lungs and cause pneumonia.  Well that is a danger, but besides dying from pneumonia, you can die from no water or food.

The Catholic Church’s teaching is that you are to give ordinary things to a terminally ill person like medicine, water and food.  You do not need to put in a feeding tube, unless it is advantage for the recovery of the sick person.  You do not to be put on the breathing machine either or resuscitated.  These are extraordinary means to keep people alive.

But people who are terminally ill and still have many months to live can not used things that will hasten their death just because some day it will arrive.

Two extremely important principles to remember are 1) Life is precious and should be sustained if at all possible and 2) Always do what the terminally ill patient wants as long as it is consistent with Catholic teaching.  For example, if the terminally ill patient wants to be resuscitated after heart failure, or be intubated on a breathing machine, there is nothing wrong with that because Life is precious and the persons wishes should be respected.

Now the problem I and other priests have observed is that when people are on Hospice care, they push morphine to much.  A healthy old man, whom I was visiting on a regular basis, was put on Hospice.  He was agitated and out of his mind.  But was not terminally ill.  The hospice people got mad at the family for not giving him the morphine he refused to take.  So often they tell the family that the person is in pain.  I have asked many if they are in pain and they respond no.  Yet Hospice insists on giving them morphine on the basis that more than likely they are in pain and not expressing it.

This is very dangerous, because the family taking care of the sick person or old person who is crazy with Alzheimer, get very tired.  And when they are told by a medical authority, like Hospice, that they should give them morphine, people tend to give in and obey even when the patient is not terminally ill.

Angel of Death_VERNET, HoraceWe traditional Catholics do not want to see terminally ill persons in pain.  God has given us the gift of morphine to help relieve pain.  It is a good.  But the danger comes when it is used to put people in a drugged state, who are not dying, and then they can no longer pray, eat or drink.

Over and over again I try to hear confessions of people who have not gone to confession in years and want to confess as they lie dying.  But because of the morphine, can not stay awake to confess.  I shake them, I holler at them, anything I can do to get them to make a good confession.  But it is very hard, because they keep falling asleep.  Please call the priest before they are on morphine.

So if you are dying anyway from a terminal disease, it is fine to use pain killers to relieve the pain even it it might speed up the natural process.  But it should only be used to relieve pain and not to control people with Alzheimer or other normal health conditions that come from old age.

All of us will be dying some day.  Do we want to be put on morphine and drugged out of our state of consciousness?  I do not think so.  We need to have this very clear with all those who love us and will be caring for us in our old age.

All the saints dreaded being fooled by the devil at the last part of their holy lives by the devil.  We who are by no means saints, should have more dread of being drugged out when that decisive moment happens as we approach death.

It is so important to have health care directives written out for your family to follow.

To summarize: we want to live as long as we can and until God calls us.  We want to be alert and conscious as much as possible to pray as we make our final journey to God.  We do not need extra ordinary means (machines or resuscitation).  But food, water and medicine are ordinary means of keeping alive.  We can take pain killers if they are needed, but need to balance this with our desire to be alert to pray and repent of our sins.