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Contemplating a Good Death

Hannah Patzke's picture

REVIEW: Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, by Katy Butler

By Hannah Patzke
Associate Editor

An old man lies prostrate in bed, his lips ringed in blue.  His chest rises and falls erratically and his eyes flutter occasionally.  His daughter holds his hand as he takes his last few breaths.  She kisses his forehead and draws the sheet over his face.  Is this a good death?  Would slipping away during sleep with no warning be better? 

As medical professionals we spend years learning how to preserve life.  But how does one learn when it is time to die?  Journalist Katy Butler discusses this question and others in her book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death

Butler’s parents both want “a good death” but are prevented by the very medical advances that save lives in the short term.  Should families be allowed to turn off the pacemaker keeping a demented parent alive? 

Butler illustrates the pain that comes with watching her father die the slow death of dementia following a massive stroke, coupled with her and her mother’s inability to ease his passing.  A pacemaker keeps his heart beating strongly as his mind fades away. 

She discusses the spiritual and legal ramifications of helping a loved one die in the United States.  It is estimated that roughly 25 percent of our healthcare dollars are spent in the last six months of life.  Billions of dollars are poured into desperately keeping bodies alive as they try to shut down. 

I do not disagree with the right to choose to fight for life, but what about those who are ready to die?  Should we force them to keep fighting as well? Too often our fears keep us from discussing and notating these important issues until it is too late.  Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a thought provoking book for medicals professionals, for people whose parents are aging, and for those who wish to consider how they themselves would like to die.  What is a good death?  How do you want to die? 

Hannah Patzke is a first-year Master’s student in Health Policy.