PULLMAN, Wash. — The death of Terry Schiavo highlights the growing disconnect between the medical technology we’ve developed and our ability to know when to use it, according to a Washington State University professor.
“We’ve been a ‘death denying’ society for many years,” according to Margaret Young, a former registered nurse who now is a professor in the Department of Human Development at WSU. “Today, however, we also have the technology to be a ‘death defying’ society.”
And, Young said, the same technological advances that help so many have also become a trap for some.
“We’re trapped by technology in some ways,” she said. “If we have it, we feel we have to use it. We can keep all kinds of people alive who, 50 years ago, would have died. The real question is whether, by using technology on patients like Terry Schiavo, are we prolonging life or prolonging death?”
Young said advanced technology has blurred the definition of death.”We have evolved to the point where there may be different perceptions of‘death,'” she said. “In the past, death was determined by checking pulse and respirations. Now, it is much more complicated.”
Youth-oriented Americans are “probably the worst” at dealing with death, she added.
“Death used to be a normal, natural thing. People died at home, and families accepted their loss. They prepared their loved ones for burial. Now, everything surrounding death has been taken over by professionals doctors, nurses, funeral homes.”
Young said she is surprised more wasn’t done to help Schiavo’s parents understand the realities of her condition. “Someone should have been working with her parents a long, long time ago about accepting her loss and not give them false hope that someday their little girl would wake up.”
She also noted that while most people can understand removing a patient from a respirator, there’s “a much more emotional response when it comes to removing nutrition.” In recent surveys, however, 75 percent of those polled said that had they been in Terry Schiavo’s position, they would not have wanted the feeding tube reinserted. The Schiavo case will be “talked about for years,” Young said. “It already is a political, religious and ethical issue.”
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