Life and Death for a Family Member vs. a Pet

Consider the following scenario: Your 78-year-old father gets in a terrible car accident. He lives, but machines and a cocktail of medications are the only things keeping him alive. He can’t communicate at all. The doctor says that they can perform an experimental and very expensive surgery to possibly save your father’s life, but he’ll never be the same.

What do you do?

If the scenario were different in one or more of the following ways, would your decision change?

  • Your father is younger. Mid-50s.
  • Your father has a living will that states that he wants to be unplugged from the machines in this scenario.
  • The surgery is inexpensive but just as risky with no guarantee of success.
  • It’s not your father–it’s a sibling or a child of yours.

Yesterday I wrote about what it’s like to make these kinds of choices for a pet. Most everyone said that they would go to great lengths to save their pet if it could return to a good quality of life for a significant amount of time. Someone on Facebook said that they’d sell their house before not covering a major expense for her pet.

So I started to wonder: How much do we treat our pets like humans when it comes to these major decisions? Do we have the same respect for life for humans that we do for pets? Why or why not?

There’s a decent chance that someday you’ll get the call that we all dread, the one where we learn that a family member is being kept alive by machines. Maybe it’s because of an accident, or maybe they’re just sick, and they reached that tipping point where their body needs some help.

In most of these cases, the person will be conscious, and they’ll be able to convey what they want. What if they say they want you to pull the plug? Would you do it (or sign off on the doctor doing it)? Or would you fight for their life, sparing no expense? At what point does fighting for them become more about you and your needs and less about them and theirs?

Do you value human life in the same way that you value your pet’s life? How do you treat them differently, if at all?

10 thoughts on “Life and Death for a Family Member vs. a Pet”

  1. I was going to comment about this yesterday but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to open this can of worms. Thanks for being on the same page!

    I think my answer remains the same (age and quality of life determine the best course of action), but I also think that keeping humans alive is much more draining (time, resources, energy), and I do wish that our culture accepted “pulling the plug” more readily if that’s what the individual wants. When someone is comatose and may or may not ever recover, the hell a community goes through after deciding to keep them alive just in case is very unappealing to me, albeit understandable. It’s also wildly more expensive.

    I am a logical thinker by nature and while I cannot say that I wouldn’t throw this out the window if it was my kid, I cannot imagine a time where I would rather spend my energy, time and resources on an extremely unlikely maybe than on processing grief and moving on.

    In other news, I think humans and pets are not meant to be kept alive by any means necessary and our species have diseases for a reason. As much as it sounds heartless, I would be very intrigued to see a healthcare system that focused on encouraging healthy behavior instead of treating every last symptom. Sometimes I worry about our gene pool and our mental health if we are rarely accepting death and are insisting upon keeping everyone alive as long as possible.

    • Emma–Thanks for your thoughts. I think one way that a person can alleviate some of the immense emotional burden on their family is to have a living will in place. That takes the decision out of the family’s hands to a certain extent.

      I really like this: “I would be very intrigued to see a healthcare system that focused on encouraging healthy behavior instead of treating every last symptom. Sometimes I worry about our gene pool and our mental health if we are rarely accepting death and are insisting upon keeping everyone alive as long as possible.” I’ve always wondered why our health care system doesn’t do a better job of incentivizing good health practices.

    • I definitely agree with this part about our healthcare system not focusing on healthy behavior, but rather on treating symptoms.

      I wish also that doctors and nurses alike spent more time talking with patients and making them feel more comfortable and able to ask questions. There’s nothing worse than having a doctor who doesn’t explain something in a way you understand, and then you feel dumb asking them to re-explain it.

      It just makes me mad that there isn’t as much face to face time with a doctor. They ask what’s the problem AT THAT MOMENT (as in, why are you here?), but they don’t ask, “What is your lifestyle? Tell me about a typical week, a typical month? What meals do you usually eat? How often? What’s your routine? What’s your schedule? How much sleep are you getting — is it sound and straight or is it interrupted? How much water do you drink in a day? What is your exercise routine like — if you don’t have one, what is your day like — are you sedentary in your job or moving around a lot?” They should even ask about your home life… do you have pets? are you married or in a relationship? Do you go out a lot or hang at home a lot? How often are you looking at a computer, TV, or cell phone screen? What are you doing/watching on these screens (video games, TV, writing, blogging, emails? All affect your senses and brain differently)? Even asking how you commute to and from work and how long it takes is something they should know. All of these things affect your body! And there shouldn’t be any judgment about your habits.

      How can they treat you for something when they don’t know anything about your life or habits? If they just took the time to ask simple questions and if the patient felt comfortable enough to answer them honestly, then they would at least have a better grasp on your reality. You know how you have to bring in stool samples for your dog to the vet so that they can see what your dog’s been eating? Well, human doctors could just ask patients what they’ve been eating and determine a lot of things — but they never actually ask unless it’s a serious situation (as in, you’re at the hospital).

      • Lorena–Thanks for your thoughts on the health care system. It’s been a while since I’ve been to the doctor for a checkup, but I completely agree that a key part of a doctor’s job is to ask a lot of questions so that they know your lifestyle. That way they can evaluate how your lifestyle is impacting your health.

        I’m guessing a lot of people my age don’t get regular checkups, which is a terrible idea, but why is that? Why do we only go to the doctor when we’re sick? And even then, I’m guessing that most people try to self-diagnose first online. Perhaps it’s just inconvenience, but I think part of it is that the entire “relationship” side of a patient-doctor relationship is absent. The last time I went to a doctor for a checkup, I sat in the waiting room for over an hour and then saw the doctor for about 3 minutes. That was it. I don’t think I’ve been to a doctor in a long time and not felt like I was inconveniencing them.

  2. Hmm. Well, to me personally, my beliefs lead me to a place where very often, it is better for the person to be let go. If it were me being kept alive by machines, I hope my family would know that I did not want to be tethered to earth like that!

    And I know it sounds REALLY morbid–and I SWEAR I am not suicidal–but sometimes, when life gets particularly difficult, Rob and I will say something like this to each other: “Only sixty-ish more years till heaven! Then we won’t have to deal with crap like this!” Haha.

    So for me, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that unplugging someone’s body from machines is simply ushering them into eternal joy. And that takes the pain out of it somewhat, although obviously it still sucks for those who are left behind.

    (I did not make this comment hoping to open up a religious discussion, everybody, so please don’t turn it into that! Email me if you want to talk about it further! annerileybooks (at) gmail (dot) com.)

    • Anne–Oh, I don’t think that’s suicidal at all. Although I’m all about living our lives on earth as if that’s all we get, I’m definitely hoping that something will follow. I like this a lot: “there’s a certain comfort in knowing that unplugging someone’s body from machines is simply ushering them into eternal joy.”

  3. I didn’t have a chance to comment yesterday, so I’m going to work it into today’s response. I’m also glad I waited, because I found out something today that really ties into this.

    About 6 years ago, I woke up one Sunday morning and found my beloved chocolate lab mix, Lola, lying on the floor half-dead. The house looked like something out of a horror movie—the walls and floors were smeared in blood, and she was laying in a pool of it. She had ingested something poisonous (to this day we still don’t know what, but I think she found it outside) that was causing her severe intestinal distress. She could barely move, and more blood kept gushing out of her every minute. Thank goodness for a nearby 24-hour animal clinic. They told us that they could treat her and that she would fully recover, but there was a half-moment of hesitation before they stated how much it would cost: $1,000. I was willing to pay much more than that to make her well again, and I immediately told them to do it. After a few days there and a few weeks of taking it easy at home, she was back to her normal, sweet self. She was young and since I was assured that she could be 100% again, I had no issues paying the money. It would have been a different story though if she could be treated but would continually suffer after that. I couldn’t bear to watch that or put her through it if her life wouldn’t be the same–watching squirrels but not being able to chase them, in pain when she moved. It would break my heart.

    In contrast…

    I found out at lunch today that a friend’s dad just died at the age of 55. He found out two months ago that he had throat cancer, and it was already in the advanced stages to where he couldn’t eat. They tried a few aggressive treatments, but he didn’t react well to them and so he chose to stop treatment. He pushed to be released from the hospital and spend his days at home while trying treatments that would still leave him with some quality of life without completely giving up the fight. He died peacefully in his sleep, with only one tube attached to him that supplied him with calories and nutrients since he was unable to eat. I think he made all of the right choices for him, and I’m glad that his family let him do that. My friend wrote that her heart aches because she misses her dad, but her soul is happy knowing that he is in a better place and no longer suffering.

    I think these two stories contrast beautifully to show that there are some times when life is worth fighting for, and some times when it is best to let go. That line isn’t always easy to figure out though, and I think it really depends on the individual and the circumstances. Some people are determined that it’s not their time to go yet, and they’ll do whatever it takes to fight their illness. More power to them if that’s how they feel—it’s not my place to judge how they want to handle their life. Just as it’s not my place to prolong someone’s life unnecessarily against their wishes.

    Those kinds of conversations are not fun to have with family and loved ones, but it needs to be said in case it’s needed some day, rather than hoping that they will make the right choice for you if the time ever comes. My family, for instance, knows that I want doctors to take every organ or body part they are able to if I ever die and I’m eligible for donation. I have discussed it with them numerous times just to remind them, I have my license signed to state I am a donor, I keep an extra card in my wallet that states I wish to be a donor, and I am registered on the website of the Dept of Health and Human Services that states I want to donate my organs in case my family can’t be reached to consent. They’re not lengthy, morbid conversations, but I make my requests “public” so that I know the decision will be that much easier for them if they are ever in that situation. They can feel a little more at peace knowing that they’ve honored my wishes.

    • Katie–I’m very sorry to hear about your friend’s father and the trauma Lola went through, but I’m really glad you posted. Your comment tied my two posts together really well.

      I applaud your willingness to give up your organs after you pass on. I’m the same way–if I’m not alive, I don’t need my body anymore, so I hope people can continue to put my organs to good use. If anyone wants to claim their organ of choice now, please let me know. It might be a while before you receive it, though.


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