My name is Vincent, and yours is too.
A French man named Vincent died this week. You might have heard about it. Vincent was a quadriplegic — he’d been that way since a motorcycle accident a decade ago. Vincent could not move. He could not speak. But he could breathe on his own. Some accounts said he could cry or smile. His doctor reported that he could feel pain. Vincent’s family was divided as to what was best for him. A few of them said he should continue to be cared for until he passed away naturally. Some of them wanted to remove his feeding tubes. They said it’s what he would have wanted. Vincent left no directives, so his relatives fought their positions passionately, and the case went all the way before the United Nations. In the end, Vincent Lambert’s sustenance was removed, and more than a week later, he died.
Halfway around the world, I cried for a Frenchman I never met.
I know how difficult end-of-life issues can be. I realize how painful and murky and gray it is to have someone else’s life in the palm of your hand, to have to make the choice for them to end it, forever.
But I know a few other things too. I know them clearly. I know them firsthand from my battle with cancer and its accompanying treatments. If you’re squeamish, you may want to skip a few paragraphs or quit reading here altogether. Or maybe you ought to read along anyway. Maybe you need to know.
I don’t know what it’s like to starve. But I know what it’s like to take in barely any calories, to need nourishment and not be able to get it. I remember an awful, burning, stomach-churning, puking pain. Gnawing that turns into nausea. Weight loss that makes you lightheaded and freezing cold.
I don’t know what it’s like to be on end-of-life sedatives. But I do know what it’s like to be drugged heavily. I know it can help, sometimes a lot, but it can’t take away every pain, every fear. I remember disconnection and peacefulness. I also remember hallucinations and bad reactions, vomiting, crying.
I don’t know what it’s like to be totally unable to communicate. But I do know what it’s like to be unable to make yourself understood to others. I know that silence does not equal consent. I know that the life of the mind can exist richly, even when the body cannot express it.
Intentionally, consistently withholding nourishment from a human in order to hasten his death is torture — regardless of the goodness of one’s intentions or the strength of one’s painkillers. It doesn’t matter whether that human walks and speaks or just lays there, looking for all the world like a vegetable. We must not assume someone isn’t suffering because we won’t hear him scream. We must not only walk a mile in the shoes of another person, but lay an hour in his sickbed, the hour of his death. We must act and advocate accordingly.
I have never been a non-communicative quadriplegic. But, in brief moments, I have been Vincent, and someday, I might be again. You might be too.