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'Whose Death' Looks at Troubling Issues

June 06, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER

Nobody handles the combination of a TV studio audience, a panel of experts and a difficult topic like Ted Koppel, but pediatrician/surgeon/medical reporter Dr. Nancy Snyderman does her Koppel-like best tonight on the PBS special "Whose Death Is It Anyway?"

This is sober, sad stuff, as Snyderman takes her audience through the rough terrain of how to decide when your loved one should die, and how to follow their wishes.

Those who have endured the sit in waiting rooms, only to be hit by a doctor with the impossible decision of keeping a loved one on or off life support systems, will empathize with audience members who relate their personal crises.

Nearly everyone here agrees that it's best not to needlessly sustain a patient near death, but the doctors tell Snyderman that their professional culture--based on the Hippocratic oath of doing no harm--can run counter to family wishes. In response, family members tell Snyderman that they have a problem with doctors.

The underlying problem both are encountering is never raised here: The technology for sustaining life has far exceeded our ethical and emotional grasp, and what doctors may call "starvation" or "snuffing out" is what loved ones may call a release. Even the highly touted living will, which specifies the exact parameters of treatment for a person near death, may not be recognized by all doctors as justification for turning off the switch. (Living wills also vary from state to state, which may be another argument for a national health care program.)

Nevertheless, living wills certainly can't hurt, as suggested by a few segments introduced by Betty Rollin about terminal patients. One family, the Abrils, is in a state of grieving panic because of confusion over the nature of father Juan Abril's dying wishes. One woman, Maria Rodriguez, is shown having her living will tattooed on her belly, just so there's no mistake.

"Whose Death Is It Anyway?" can't resolve the ethical chasm between doctors and patients, but it does offer hope that the use of pain-killing drugs is becoming a widely accepted means to a peaceful death without a torturous wait for the survivors. TV that embraces death like this hour, despite the profound disagreements, can only be a healthy thing.

* "Whose Death Is It Anyway?" airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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