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Killacky: Dignity in Death

(Host) As the End of Life debate moves to the Vermont House, commentator John Killacky is reflecting on his own life.

(Killacky) My first job in college was as an orderly at the University of Illinois Hospital. Morgue duty was part of the routine. I had the honor of being present at many patients' last exhalations - some alone, others as loved ones surrounded them.

Decades later, at the height of the AIDS pandemic, I grappled with all too many friends and their families agonizing over how to lessen the pain of dying and provide some dignity,as we let cherished ones go on. Compassionate medical staff often eased the journeys.

These experiences taught me a great deal about the emotional complexities surrounding death, especially when a patient has no control of their own end of life decisions. So, when seventeen years ago I had surgery to remove a tumor from inside my spinal cord, I wanted to be clear about my intentions. Before the operation, I signed a release requesting no 'extraordinary measures' to extend my life.

Unfortunately,I woke up from that surgery paralyzed from the neck down. My mind and body were totally separate. I could not stop the jerking of my limbs, unclench my left hand, or move any toes. I had no sense of location on my left side and no sensation on my right.

As soon as I was conscious, medical staff urged me to take off my do not resuscitate bracelet. You see, at that hospital, if a 'Code Blue' was called, medical staff rushed into the room to do everything necessary to revive a patient. If one wore one of these bracelets, however, no alert would be called. I wasn't convinced by well meaning doctors and nurses that I wanted to go on living and kept it on my wrist.

My bed was on a ward with folks who had experienced strokes, brain, and spinal cord injuries. We were a rag tag lot in rehab, most of us still in shock as to what had happened. I was one of the lucky ones, some weeks later I had gained limited mobility and was sent home in a wheelchair. Only then did I take the bracelet off, as I began living in my new body. The road to recovery has been arduous and is still ongoing. Today I walk with a bifurcated stride assisted by a cane.

Seventeen years ago, with lucid mind, I requested no extraordinary medical measures be taken and not to be resuscitated. Despite the positive outcome, I know those were the right choices for me at that time. As the End-of-Life debate moves to the Vermont House, I hope legislators will keep in mind how important it is for all of us to make informed end of life decisions, each for ourselves. When I face death again, I want it to be on my terms.

John Killacky is the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington.
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