IN DEFENCE OF DEATH These doctors believe death with dignity is a matter of personal choice
In this series, we cover unusual groups that have been formed by a common passion. This week, Ketan Tanna enters the world of fierce minds that want to have the right to end their lives if they are terminally ill and suffering
In 1996, Dr Surendra Dhelia, a general physician based in South Mumbai had made up his mind to end the life of his father. He could no longer bear to see him suffer. â€œMy father was suffering from multiple illnesses. It was so bad that I made up my mind that he had to go. I informed family members of my plan and everyone agreed. I then told my friend, a psychiatrist of my plans. My friend told me that while he understood my pain, I would not be able to handle the guilt. It was then that I changed my mind, but I stopped all the active treatment which was legally permissible and within months he passed away.â€
Unlike Dr Dhelia who is open about his experience, euthanasia is Indiaâ€™s worst kept secret. There are scores of families that are deciding to end the medical treatment of their beloved. It is illegal to end the life of a terminally ill person, but families find loopholes around the legal technicalities to put their love ones out of pain and despair.
Usually, there is a doctor who helps the family take such a decision. There are families and doctors who sometimes work to terminate the life of an ill person by creative means like â€œadjusting the ventilatorâ€ or by giving medicines that hasten the end. This news may shock some but there are hundreds of individuals who believe that death with dignity is a personal choice. One such person was the late social activist Minoo Masani who formed The Society for the Right to Die with Dignity (SRDD) in 1981.
But the cause of dying with dignity that Masani campaigned for still lives in the hearts and minds of nearly 200 persons who are SRDD members. Dr Dhelia is one such member.
â€œAt any medical conference that I attend or when I meet someone, I make it a point to explain the concept of SRDD. While many are indifferent, there are a few who join the SRDD,â€ he says. Former member, the late Sadanand Varde, moved a Bill in 1984 in the Maharashtra legislature seeking to legalise it, but failed to garner support. The SRDD has also published a document called the Living Will or Ichha Maran. The document instructs under what circumstances the person would want to be euthanized. But Living Will has no legal validity in India.
Currently, spearheading the SRDD movement in Mumbai is Dr Nagraj G Huilgol who is the chief of radiation oncology at Nanavati Hospital and honorary secretary of the society. His firm belief in the right to die with dignity has attracted many young doctors. One such doctor is 31-year-old S K Susheel Kumar who joined a year ago.
â€œI was working with Nair hospital which has some 30 ventilators for 1,500 patients. Given the logistical problems, costs of medicine, costs of other staffers, it works out to Rs 10,000 per day, per patient if he or she is kept on the ventilator. In a country like India, which hospital can afford such treatment? If a person has become a vegetable, things have to end,â€ says Kumar who is a Consultant Radiologist at Nanavati Hospital.
â€œAll I can say is please visit the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital and spend a day or two there. Children with huge bulbous growths, old people suffering inhumanely, is this what you call life?â€ he asks.
â€œPeople associate euthanasia with suicide. Euthanasia is the practice of terminating the life of a very ill person who is unlikely to live a qualitative life in a painless or minimally painful way,â€ he says. On the common belief that euthanasia can be misused, Nagraj says checks and balances can take care of that. â€œIn any case, each law can be misused. Even medicines or their molecules can be misused. Does that mean one should stop manufacturing medicines?â€ he asks. TNN