Monday, November 12, 2007

Four Score And Ten Are Plenty, Thanks

Those pseudo-, quasi- and not-very-scientific articles about extending human life way past the century mark give me chills. I'm sure someday it will be possible - maybe even the norm - for many of you (not me) to live to 115, 120 - 150 - 375?

The frontier of biologic possibilities has certainly been explored and successfully tamed in terms of the mechanics of conception, joint replacements, major organ transplants, and successful treatment for those previously thought terminal from cancer and other devastating illnesses, More sophisticated possibilities are wide-open should stem cell transplant research eventually prove fruitful and the ethics of the issue are somehow resolved.

In harsher terms, we're now able to save and maintain life for millions of people who just a few years ago would have died. We're also able to prolong life for millions who in the early 20th century would have died of "old age." (FYI, doctors always put that term in quotes when relating a patient's family history, even though it seems obvious to mere mortals.)

In my work I often see patients well into their 80's who are offered surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy for cancers of one sort or another -- and while a few opt out for quality of life reasons, many, many take advantage of these radical and highly toxic therapies. Very often the patient's initial inclination is to refuse treatment, but they are frequently swayed by loving family members who can't bear the thought of a relative's imminent death.

Years ago, before antibiotics and modern medical treatments, and when childbearing was a leading cause of death for women and infant mortality was tragically common, death was very much a part of everyone's experience. We didn't always call undertakers to perform the last courtesies for our loved ones -- we laid them out in our parlors, held wakes there, physically assisted in burials, and then "wore mourning" for a prescribed period of time -- a constant reminder of a passing, an immediate reminder of death.

We do some of those things now, of course, but in a much more sanitized, pasteurized way. And God knows, if the "mourning period" extends longer than our feel-good society mandates, we're urged to seek help from a therapist or the ubiquitous support group.

Ours has become a culture of life-at-any-cost (well, excepting the right of the fetus' life, of course). We seemed to have come to a point of refusing to acknowledge that death IS a part of life -- the single certain, inevitable part.

Maybe I'm more at peace with this reality than many since my life has been touched by death so much. I have far more dead relatives than living ones -- and, in fact, far more dead friends, too. My kids have (jokingly) threatened to warn men I date that I'm the Black Widow, with husbands and lovers keeling over right and left... I have sometimes wondered (not jokingly) if a psychic would run screaming after one look at my aura.

If it were possible for a whole lot of "ifs" to march into place, my next career would be as a bioethicist, studying this phenomenon and the other ethical issues involved with future medical research and treatments. We have come so far with research and procedures, but has our understanding of the implications of this "progress" kept pace? When are we smart enough, moral enough to say, "no, thanks"? There are always experts lined up ten deep on all sides of the fence -- and these issues are always, always politicized -- never a strong point for solemn and serious consideration of the ethical side of any issue.

From a personal viewpoint, I'm happy to vacate my carbon footprint before I'm 100. The world is looking pretty nuts to me about now, and, even though my body could be preserved through a pharmaceutical, mechanical or transplanted miracle, there's no way my mind could accept much more of the upheaval our culture undergoes every 20 years or so.

Parrots, redwood trees and bristlecone pine trees were given naturally long life spans, but they don't have to deal with pop culture and the media. Hip-hop music and one more article about Paris Hilton would be enough for me to pull the plug -- to say nothing of the shredding of our Constitution and the terror of power-mad leaders globally. I'm not sure how a person's mind could ever span 150 years of culture, including all the internal adjustments needed to assimilate the changes. I know for sure I won't find out.

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