At The Hour Of Our Death

Maybe you heard the news about Tim Bowers week before last. On that Saturday, Tim went deer hunting near his home in rural Indiana. He said goodbye to his wife, who is expecting their first child in a few months. They were married last August. Tim, 32, owned an automotive repair shop and was well-known as a kind and generous man. He was a member of St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization. And he loved being out in the woods. That day he was hunting in a deer stand fixed 16 feet up in a tree. There was an accident. Tim fell from the stand and broke several vertebra in his neck. He was paralyzed from the neck down and had to have a ventilator do his breathing for him. Although his brain was not injured in the fall, his doctors used medications to place him in a coma to prevent further injury to his spinal cord.

The doctors told Tim’s wife and family that he would probably need a ventilator for the rest of his life. He would never walk again. He would never hold their new baby. His family was in a unique situation because just a month earlier they had heard Tim discuss what he wanted done in a situation like this. During that conversation Tim made it clear that if he were paralyzed or if he needed machines to keep him alive as the result of an accident or illness, he wouldn’t want to be kept alive by extraordinary means. So his family made a rather unusual request. They asked his doctors to remove Tim from the coma he was in so that they could talk things over with him. When he woke up, his family discussed his prognosis with him. Tim then made the decision to discontinue the ventilator which was keeping him alive. He knew that this action would hasten his death. According to his family and friends who were there, Tim made it very clear that he understood what he was doing and wanted the machines removed. The ventilator was removed and over the next five hours, Tim’s family and friends gathered in his room. They sang and talked and prayed. And Tim died.

I hope that all of us spend some time considering what Tim and his family must have been thinking about last Saturday in that hospital room. Decisions about end-of-life medical care need to be considered and discussed long before the last hours of our earthly existence. Tim’s family knew his wishes because they had talked about it. They knew what he wanted. That’s important. What’s also important is knowing what the Church teaches on these issues. We believe that life is God’s gift to us and must be treated as precious and irreplaceable. No one’s life may be purposefully-ended. To do that is murder. To aid in that end is to assist in murder. And yet the Church also teaches that there are mitigating factors in making decisions at or near the end of our lives. Suffering can be eased and pain can be managed in order to allow a natural end. This complex and delicate discussion isn’t appropriate for a reflection such as this one, but I hope that by sharing Tim’s story, you will be encouraged to talk about these issues with your family, your friends, and your pastor.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks at length about end-of-life care beginning at paragraph 2278. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops website is also an excellent resource (usccb.org). Both discuss “advance directives” such as living wills and durable powers of attorney which can direct the decisions made by your doctors and family if you’re unable to communicate. Talk with your pastor so you’re clear on Church teachings before you make any decisions or put anything in writing. He’s likely had this same discussion with many others before you and he’ll be a great help to you as you consider your future medical care. One of Tim’s friends spoke to the media about his friend’s strong Catholic faith and said of him, “He was ready to go to heaven. He was ready for God.” What a comfort this is to those who loved Tim. May all of us be just as ready to meet our Lord.

“God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.”
—Wisdom 1:13

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