I’ll admit it, I’m an adrenaline junkie. And judging from the plethora of new TV shows like “Trauma: Life in the ER” or “Code Black,” most of America is too. Except that’s my life. I’m a Trauma Nurse. I eat, sleep, and breathe trauma.
Every time I walk into work with a French Vanilla Swirl Latte from Dunkin’ Donuts in my hand, life and death are waiting for me. And up until this week I thought I’d seen just about everything. I’ve performed CPR till I thought my arms would fall off to keep blood pumping through a child’s body. I’ve administered life-saving medication to a patient having a stroke and seen the joy on his face when he regained his speech. I’ve had a patient fall through a ceiling onto another patient (I can’t even make that up.) I’ve held the hand of patients as they’ve taken their last breath, and I’ve hugged family members so tight I couldn’t breathe. I really thought I’d seen it all.
And then last week, my mom died. She had a glioblastoma brain tumor. I knew all about it, even cared for patients with her same diagnosis. I knew what was going to happen. But no matter how much I thought I was ready, I wasn’t. Death stings. And my beautiful, 52-year-old mother’s grave is freshly dug.
But my mom’s name was Dr. Maggie Karner. And she was the textbook definition of awesome. Don’t take my word for it, Google her. She devoted her entire life to helping others and spreading Christ’s beautiful gift of mercy for all. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard my mom speak more passionately then when she was talking about the word “mercy.” And that’s why my mom used her last days on Earth to campaign against a very dangerous use of that word. A “merciful death” some would call it, or a “right to die.”
My mom is most famous for a YouTube video that went viral entitled “A Letter to Brittany Maynard.” In the video my mom pleaded with Brittany, who had the same diagnosis, not to commit assisted suicide. Unfortunately, Brittany eventually chose to end her life, but my mom never stopped advocating for life. In her words, “How long will it be before the right to die quickly devolves into the duty to die? What does this mean for all who are elderly, or disabled, or just wondering if they’ve become a burden to the family?” Even while she was receiving chemotherapy, my mom spoke at the Connecticut state house to lobby against a “right to die” bill. The bill did not pass.
Difficulty Doesn’t Justify Suicide
That’s why my heart breaks tonight to learn the news that California’s governor has just signed legislation allowing residents of the state to take their own lives in the face of terminal illness. This makes five states in our nation allowing assisted suicide.
Believe me, terminal illness sucks. There is no way to sugar coat that. It stole my mom from me along with so many others. But it also gave me something that I could never begin to describe, the opportunity to serve her. My family and I cared for her when she could no longer care for herself. We were her left arm when hers was paralyzed. And when that became too much, we had the distinct privilege of being able to visit her at her hospice facility during the last month of her life. She was not herself, and many times confused, but she could laugh. Even up until the day before she died. We laughed about seagulls that she thought were drones. We laughed about how much she loved chocolate and McFlurry’s from McDonald’s. We laughed about all the stupid things I did as a kid. And then when she could no longer laugh, we sang to her and we prayed with her.
My mom said it best in an op-ed in the Hartford Courant: “My brain may be cancerous, but I still have lots to contribute to society as a strong woman, wife and mother while my family can daily learn the value of caring for me in my last days with compassion and dignity.”
I’m here to say that she was right. No matter how hard it was and still is. She was so right. And the greatest honor of my life was to care for my mom in her last days. I hope and pray that her legacy will continue to inspire caring American voters to support those choosing to squeeze life for every drop that it has to give. Support hospice and palliative care programs that give true meaning to “death with dignity.” Let those fighting illness and disabilities know that they are precious, no matter what. They should never have to feel for a second that they might have a “duty to die” just because the option is available.