By Tanya Connor
A Jewish doctor told Catholics he wants physician-assisted suicide to remain illegal – because it has never been part of medicine and may destroy the medical profession in its moral foundations.
But he said his fondest hope is that, “as a caring, loving society, we make assisted-suicide irrelevant.”
Dr. Ira Byock, director of palliative medicine at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., was giving the keynote address for the White Mass Oct. 18.
“I am a Jew,” he said, speaking from the lectern in St. Paul Cathedral’s upper church after the annual Mass for healthcare workers. “Life is an absolute value for Jews.”
Making connections with Catholic listeners, he said Christ represents for him a radical commitment to love, and he expressed appreciation for the Church’s articulation of social justice and clinical ethics.
He quoted the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago writing to the United States Supreme Court in 1996 about Vacco v. Quill, a case in which the court ultimately upheld a ban on assisted suicide.
“As one who is dying, I have come especially to appreciate the gift of life,” the cardinal wrote. “I know from my own experience that patients often face difficult and deeply personal decisions about their care. However, I also know that even a person who decides to forgo treatment does not necessarily choose death. Rather, he chooses life without the burden of disproportionate medical intervention.”
A vote for physician assisted suicide is a moral failure to promote the compassionate care owed to the terminally ill, Bishop McManus said in his homily at the White Mass.
“I ardently oppose Question 2 and similar so-called ‘Death With Dignity’ acts, because they imply … that people who are seriously ill are not already dignified – but they are,” Dr. Byock said.
“I believe that our job, as physicians … nurses … clinicians … as members of a loving, civilized community … is to allow people to experience and to see their inherent dignity reflected in our eyes, by the way they are cared for,” he said. “That’s harder than writing a prescription for a lethal medication.”
The “Death with Dignity Act” which calls for legalizing physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts is to appear as Question 2 on the ballot on election day, Nov. 6. In order to keep doctors in Massachusetts from being allowed to give patients medicine to kill themselves, a majority of voters must vote “no” on Question 2.
“It is a serious mistake to give doctors authority to end people’s lives,” Dr. Byock said. He said people often feel helpless and hopeless when they go to doctors.
“My job is to see their condition as being full of hope, though not hope to live forever, but hope to be comfortable, to feel loved, to have a sense of completion in their life, to grow inwardly and together with those they love,” he said.
“Indeed we do have a public health crisis that surrounds the way we die in America today, on that I agree with my friends who are supporting Question 2,” Dr. Byock said. “I think they’re people of good intentions. They are simply making an error. For this … is a crisis of our own making … excessive medical treatment through a medical, industrial complex whose business model is, ‘More is better’ … mixed with a near social abandonment of people who are seriously ill … and unable … to contribute in materialistic ways to society. It is truly a crisis, but one that we can solve.”
He said too much of the suffering he sees is avoidable, imposed by the healthcare system and a society whose economy is not about love but dollars.
“None of the deficiencies that cause people who I care for to suffer would be fixed by legalizing physician-assisted suicide,” Dr. Byock said. “Today we still do not train medical students … adequately to care well for people facing the end of life. … We do not demand that they be trained well … We still woefully understaff our nursing homes. … We pauperize people … for being seriously ill and not dying quickly enough. All of this can change, and must change, but Question 2 will change none of it.”
Dr. Byock said he hears repeatedly the argument that there are people whose suffering “we cannot touch.” But he says that, in addition to using medicine, “when you meet people in community…with unabashed tenderness and love, very little suffering goes untouched.”
In his homily Bishop McManus said the medical profession continues Christ’s healing ministry. He said Catholic healthcare providers have developed skills through study, training and practice. But it is their faith in God as author of life, and their commitment to Church teachings about life and death, that allow them to treat not only a sickness but a person redeemed by Christ, he said.
Because of secularist convictions about life and death, many moral and legal difficulties are encroaching on the Church’s ability to stay in the health care field in which it has traditionally played a significant role, Bishop McManus said.
He said the moral principles of the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life must remain free from legal or political compromise if the Church is to continue her presence in health care with spiritual and moral integrity.
He called the Death With Dignity Act “menacing and dangerous.” He said it does not require a patient to consult with a psychiatrist before receiving a prescription to commit suicide, even though many terminally ill patients are said to suffer from depression.
A doctor does not even have to be present when the patient takes the lethal prescription. And the patient does not have to notify a family member, he said.
“Is that dignified – to die alone, not surrounded by family and friends?” Bishop McManus asked. “I don’t think so.”
After Dr. Byock’s talk, St. Vincent Healthcare Grants were awarded to the following: Problem Pregnancy – Ultrasound Testing – $2,000; St. Anne Free Medical Program – Tuberculosis Screening and Pertussis Booster – $5,000; Catholic Charities – Essential Inedibles Program – $750; Catholic Charities – Special Health & Nutritional Needs Program – $750; Dismas House – Restorative Healthcare Initiative – $2,000; Radius Healthcare Center – Alzheimer’s Educational Expo – $1,000; Mary, Queen of the Rosary – Outreach Ministry – $1,500; St. Mary Healthcare – Music Therapy – $1,000; St. Mary School, Worcester – School Nurse Program – $3,000; Pernet Family Health Services – Maternal Child Home Visits – $4,000; Alzheimer’s Association – Connecting Caregivers Helpline – $1,300; Catholic Charities – Prescriptions, Co-pays & Special Diet Gift Card Project – $750; Nazareth Home for Boys – Eye Glass Project – $1,000; Worcester Division of Elders – Senior Center Podiatry Clinic – $1,500; Auburn Council on Aging – Rides for Health – $1,200; Respect Life Office – To Live Each Day With Dignity Conference – $2,000; St. Paul Elder Outreach – $2,000; Catholic Charities – Healthcare Resources & Advocacy – $750; Ministry for Retired Priests – Chronic and Acute Healthcare Needs – $4,000; Southeast Asian Coalition – Nutritional Health Workshops – $1,000; Mary, Queen of the Rosary – Family Wellness Program – $1,500; Spanish American Center – Health Talks with Dr. Blanco – $1,000; YWCA – Encore After Breast Cancer – $1,000; Spectrum Health Systems – Epipen Access Project – $1,196; Catholic Restoration Apostolate – Infant Car Seat Program – $1,000; VNA – Worcester Elder Health Clinics – $1,500; Central MA Hospice – End of Life Support – $1,500; Children’s Friend, Inc. – Carriage House Grief Support Center – $1,500; Alternatives Unlimited, Inc. – Adaptive Equipment Solutions – $1,500; Heywood Hospital – Healthcare Consultations – $500; Catholic Restoration Apostolate – Breast Pump Program – $1,000; St. John Parish – Free Clinic – $2,000; Veterans, Inc. – Health & Wellness Program – $2,000; Our Lady of the Angels School – School Nurse Program – $3,000; St. Joseph Church – Parish Nursing – $2,000; Assabet Valley Pastoral Counseling Center – Psychotherapy Groups – $1,000.
Family cares for mother until her death
By Constance Dwyer
Mary C. (Saccucci) Sullivan, 89, died on Sept. 20, after living with the results of a devastating stroke for seven years. She died peacefully, having lived her life as a strong Catholic and dedicated church member at St. Christopher Parish in Brimfield where she sang in its choir with her classically trained voice. She was known as the “Hardwick Songbird.” Her daughter, Christine “Chrissy” Sullivan, was her accompanist at countless weddings and funerals.
Maureen Sullivan, in a eulogy at her mother’s funeral, said, “In the 9th grade Mary’s talent first came into the spotlight and from then she blossomed into a beautiful and talented singer, and seemed destined for a career in show business in New York.”
However, she abandoned dreams of show business to return home to Wheelwright and her Gilbertville boyfriend, Roger Sullivan, whom she had dated since junior high school. In 1944, when he was on leave from the Navy in World War II for nine days, they married.
Mrs. Sullivan’s story in accepting her illness and death stands in stark contrast to the message of the Nov. 6 binding referendum question, on so-called “Death with Dignity.” It provides a powerful argument for the defeat of this ballot question.
There was never any question of ending their mother’s life, despite the struggles, her daughter Donna McDonald said in an interview. Throughout her illness, Mrs. Sullivan had the loving support of her husband of 67 years, Roger, 91, and her children: Kathleen Kenyon of Brimfield, Christine Sullivan of Grafton, Maureen Sullivan of Sterling, Donna McDonald of Westborough, and Richard Sullivan of Hardwick.
“My siblings and I spent every weekend and some weekdays during these past seven years caring for my mother in her wheelchair, feeding her, changing her, taking her for rides, giving her treats, and lovingly being by her side. She could speak until the last few days before her death,” Mrs. McDonald said. She remarked that her mother constantly had a smile on her face for her family, grandchildren, and the caregivers who were there for her 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as those present for her father, who also needs around-the-clock care.
Before Mrs. Sullivan’s stroke, she was not only active in her church but she also enjoyed gardening, crocheting, and was a floral designer for a Sturbridge florist. She was a past president of the Catholic Women’s Club. In addition, she was a special education tutor at Wales Elementary School. Her students loved her so much that some would ride their bikes from Wales to her house in Brimfield to visit her during summer vacation.
Given to entertaining at home, she enjoyed making her own spaghetti sauce, homemade pastas and pies for her family and friends.
“Mom was always thinking of others and was sweet-tempered, generous with her love, and loved and admired by all who knew her,” Maureen Sullivan said in her mother’s eulogy. She also succinctly captured Mrs. Sullivan’s life: “If you knew Mary, you knew she loved three things: her family, her friends, and her church.”
Mrs. McDonald shared that her mother and father prayed the rosary every day. She added that friends who needed extra prayers would call to ask that a rosary be said for their intentions. Her faith was strong. When she was well, she never missed Mass or any holy days of obligation. She found great comfort in praying alongside her Infant Jesus of Prague statue or her Hummel Madonna. Because of her Catholicism, all the children have “core values,” Mrs. McDonald further commented.
Because of the family’s dedication to their mother in her hour of need, Mrs. McDonald said they became even closer. The children were raised to be close and their mother “didn’t put up with strife between kids. Everyone got along.” Mrs. McDonald said that that closeness became a grace during their mom’s illness.
“Our getting closer helped strengthen our relationship. We spent more time with our mother and that time was meaningful, not always easy, but we knew she appreciated it. We wanted to give back to her as she always cared for us. She would have done anything for her kids,” she said.
Because of her mother’s illness, Mrs. McDonald came to view her siblings in another light. “I knew my sisters and brother were good but I got to see even more goodness and how loving they were. It brought out the very best of their qualities,” she said.
Because of the time dedicated to caring for their mother, Mrs. McDonald was asked if this took a toll on the spouses. She said that her own husband, Bruce, was “very supportive” and came sometimes with her and that all the husbands were “supportive.”
It was the care of their mother that helped the family change their perspective on life. “We changed our perspective, sort of a grace, and this happened over the process. It helped us to see more clearly what is important,” Mrs. McDonald said.
She added that her mother received extraordinary care from the South Worcester County Visiting Nurses and the Greater Springfield Senior Services as well as from hospice care from the Overlook, which was both skillfully and compassionately coordinated by registered nurse Veronica Furst.
Because of these services and family help, Mrs. Sullivan and her husband were able to continue to live at home. Now, Mr. Sullivan can stay in their home. There the family will continue to care for him and will kindle the tender, loving memories of the matriarch who exemplified her Catholic faith in all aspects of her life.
Mary Sullivan’s family saw to it that she died with all possible dignity.