Through personal experiences, medical facts, historical precedents, international research and a call to action, the first ever Stealth Euthanasia Symposium in the Southland offered participants a closer look at some of the more sobering end-of-life issues along with positive steps to reverse current culture trends. Held at Biola University, the symposium attracted more than 200 participants from across Southern California — along with guests from Texas and Toronto, Canada — interested in learning how to fight “unspoken methods” in the health care system that hasten death. “The first line of defense is education and that’s what we are doing here today,” says Bob Cielnicky, president of the Scholl Institute of Bioethics who helped coordinate this symposium. “The pressures that are put on a terminally ill person and their families are tremendous and lots of misinformation can be relayed. We want to shine a light on the system.” The morning sessions illustrated the all-too-often rushed and impersonal current state of health care. Kicking off the symposium was speaker Jennifer Hanmann who described her dramatic experiences being in a coma when a doctor gave her medication that adversely interacted with her epilepsy medication. Despite being nonresponsive to the medical staff and locked down physically, she was aware and could hear discussions about her. She said nurses ignored her, and she often got the feeling that she was “just a thing in a hospital room” instead of a living breathing person. The doctor on call declared her brain dead and recommended taking her off life support, but Hanmann’s husband refused; in the end she miraculously recovered. “I had been there all along,” she told the crowd. Hanmann’s story demonstrated one of the major themes of the symposium: Stay involved with your loved one because you cannot rely on the medical staff to offer the best solution for any situation. Like Hanmann’s husband who opposed pulling the plug, everyone needs an advocate who understands his/her loved one’s wishes and who can speak on their behalf when they cannot. That point was echoed by Betty Odello, End of Life Committee chair for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, who discussed how to protect loved ones (and yourself) by understanding the advanced care directives and forms. Odello strongly advised against “checking any boxes” on forms that could lock you into an unforgiving situation. The problem with these forms, especially the Physician Orders of Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST), Odello said, is that they “cannot be specific enough for all the possible situations you could find yourself or your loved one in. You can’t predict the future. You need an agent who can be your voice and who can help the doctors implement your wishes. Life is not a check box.” Odello also shared a personal story that echoed the theme of involvement that shows how often pain control can contribute to an early death. Her mother-in-law was placed in an assisted living facility, and when Odello came to visit only a few days later, she discovered her relative was nearly comatose lying in bed. The nurse told Odello that her mother-in-law was in pain and needed the drugs. “What’s going on here?” thought Odello, who immediately made arrangements to remove her mother-in-law. Away from the care facility, her mother-in-law, in only a few days, was back to normal, walking around and going out. Assisted suicide was a big topic of discussion in the afternoon sessions. Speaker Brian Johnson, Western Regional director of the Right to Life Committee, told participants that assisted suicide has been “marketed” successfully because it taps into American’s self-reliant nature. Most Americans, he said, “blanche at the word euthanasia. It’s offensive to us.” Indeed, speaker Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, described a recent Pew Center Survey that found 49 percent of Americans oppose laws that allow doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients; 47 percent stated they approve. Again, Schadenberg emphasized the need for family and friends to be present with the elderly or those in critical care. “Families and friends who show up at a facility to visit are less likely to be ignored or abused by medical staff,” he said. “Your presence can make a difference.” Carmelite Sister Mare Estelle, director of staff development at Santa Teresita Manor in Duarte, presented a final session on ethical caring — a phrase that she called ironic. “It’s scary that these days we have to put that word ‘ethical’ in front of caring,” she said. “This is the world we live in.”

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