The End Is Not the End

C. Everett Koop on death and dying.
The End Is Not the End
Image: Dennis Brack / Newscom
The End Is Not the End

Editor's note: Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop—known for his medical advocacy and his evangelical Christian faith—died today at age 96.

My mother was 87 when she died of uterine cancer. She was in a coma, during which people actually asked me if I wanted to put her on dialysis. That would have been ridiculous for personal, spiritual, and economic reasons.

I do not believe—and have never taught—that every patient should be kept alive for the longest time possible. Nor have I said every patient has to have the last bit of high-tech heroic treatment available. I do believe in the right of the patient to say, "I have lived my life," and to choose his or her own treatment. But that question becomes complicated when we consider the decisions people make for others who are not cognitive and have not made their final wishes known.

Right now, I am 70 years old and in excellent health. If my kidneys shut down tomorrow, let's say, after a severe infection, I don't know how long I would want to be on dialysis. It would be foolish and a waste of resources for me to have a kidney transplant at my age. I would probably opt to clean up my affairs, say goodbye to my family, and drift out in uremia.

The important point is that my wife and I know exactly how each of us feels about the end of life. This will be crucial if the time comes to make such a decision and I'm not then able to do so.

Of course, all such talk has different connotations for the Christian than for the non-Christian. My wife knows I do not believe in being ushered out of this life with a lethal injection. I want to hang around long enough to be sure my family is taken care of. But after that, I don't ...

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This article is from the March 6, 1987 print issue. Subscribe to continue reading.