Health & Fitness

Mercy killing debate still rages unabated

Despite a patient’s condition, mercy killings are illegal in Kenya. FILE PHOTO
Despite a patient’s condition, mercy killings are illegal in Kenya. FILE PHOTO  

My grandmother has been ailing and in pain for a long time. I have gathered from her doctor that what the old woman wants would amount to mercy killing even though she has not discussed it with anyone in the family. Should we discourage her?

You have forced us into a conversation about grandparents and what role they play in society in general. You have also led us to a subject that is often avoided in our society, mostly because for most Africans, death is a taboo subject best left to the gods to determine the moment of its occurrence.

Many years ago, I made a serious error of judgment, in response to a question posed by a friend. As often happens, the boundaries between being a friend and being a professional become blurred as friendships grow.

Between friends, a question about challenges in a marriage can be directed at you, the friend, or your mental health expert. My error many years ago made me conscious of the need to be clear in which capacity my response is given.

In the corridors of a leading hospital in Nairobi, my friend told me that his 95-year-old grandmother was in the ICU and that the leading doctor in the team had suggested that in the event that her condition changed for the worse, there was no need to resuscitate the old lady who had led a life of distinction.

Wearing my professional hat, and without thinking about the question before me as being from my friend, I went on to explain the hospitals that do not have a resuscitation policy and how it saves families much money and anguish.

The elderly are net consumers of resources and are best left to the designs of their maker. This reckless response to a question asked by my friend almost cost us our friendship. Just for the record, the woman lived to be 100- years- old!

Before her death a number of things became clear to me. My friend was talking to me as a friend not as a doctor and was essentially asking me if I would be prepared to do anything in my power to ensure the longevity of a woman I loved, in this case a grandmother.

As he explained many months later, his father and the entire clan looked up to this woman with the greatest possible respect, in part because of the role she had played in keeping the family together. She was more than an old woman. She was the glue that bound the family together.

As a young and rather misguided young doctor I was answering a question that had not been asked, and had nothing to do with money! This rather long introduction is intended to caution you in the way that you deal with your dilemma.

Two years ago, a prominent lady died. At the age of 50, many considered her to be at her prime. She was healthy, beautiful and as friends said at her funeral “a girl of all seasons.”

Because she had lived on the fast lane of her life all her days, she had her two children while still at university. At the time of her death she had two grandchildren aged five and seven years!

By all descriptions, a 50-year-old grandmother is too young to die! As you can see, there are young, and some very old grandparents. The answer to your question must take account of the totality of the circumstances of the life and times of the grandmother.

The other matter that your question raises is about mercy killing and perhaps what approaches there are to the topic. For the record, Euthanasia is illegal in Kenya and so if your grandmother is in Kenya, the law requires that she awaits the dictates of nature.

This, however, is different from requiring a doctor from keeping patients on life support machines even if they believe that death is inevitable.

If indeed your grandmother is telling the doctor that she feels death is the only way out, please get her examined by another doctor. She could be suffering from depression. Many elderly depressed grandmothers get better from suicidal depression if properly treated!