The Right to Make Our Own Medical Choices

11/04/2017 05:31 am ET

A couple of years ago, I remember following the story of a 17-year-old Connecticut teenager who didn’t want chemotherapy treatment for her Hodgkin's lymphoma. Her argument was that she wanted to choose a quality of life without the drugs rather than a quantity of life. She was concerned about the long-term effects that the treatment would have on her body and was opposed to having the chemicals injected into her. However, because of her age, the Department of Children and Families in her State intervened in the matter feeling an obligation to force medical treatment because the medical professionals have absolutely determined that she will die without it and the Department feels that it is their obligation to defend the life of any minor, regardless of the circumstances.

For this young lady, she was so opposed to the treatments that she ran away from home after the first two treatments that she received. She knew what her options were and understood that the doctors had advised that she would die without this treatment. She made her wishes known to her mother who supported the choice that her daughter was making as her right to do so. And this young lady indicated that she would leave the medical facility where she was being treated as soon as she turns 18 years of age.

On the other side, the Department of Children and Families and the courts had a moral and legal obligation to protect the lives of children and therefore felt the necessity to intervene in this matter. No one wants any child to be harmed or hurt in any way but in a case like this, does this really fall inside of that which should be the department’s and/or the court’s jurisdiction? Has the obligation to protect a child’s life been stretched beyond the boundaries of what was intended by the regulations that govern these two bodies?

I was really troubled because this is the patient’s choice about her own life whose wishes are not being honored because of a matter of a few months until she reaches an arbitrarily determined age that she can make such choices for herself. Consider that our legal system can make a determination to try a person as an adult for a crime even if they have not reached 18 years of age so why not allow the same leeway for this situation? And knowing full well that she will withdraw treatment as soon as she is legally able to do so in a matter of months, why would one find it necessary to force this treatment on her? Might this not be considered an abuse by the very system that was supposed to protect her?

And what about adult patients who make a similar choice to not receive cancer treatment? While there is no court to force them to do so, there is the court of public opinion that is so often so widespread that a patient is ultimately made to feel guilty about their choice. Whether it is the doctors who believe that their recommended treatment should be followed because they know what is best for the patient or the spouse/children/friends, etc. who puts pressure on the patient to receive treatment, the effects on the patient are still the same. The patient might just plain want to have as many quality days of life that they can squeeze out of their remaining time to live the life that they always wanted in order to go places and do things that they could have only dreamed about in the past.

However, it is not uncommon for those around a patient to tell them that they are being selfish for not receiving treatment while it is actually those very people who are being selfish. They want the patient to get treated and get back to the work of taking care of them on all the levels that they knew prior to the diagnosis. They want the patient to get back to bringing in income rather than trying to determine what they might do to support the patient now and themselves in the future. And on whom will they rely for mental and physical support if the patient is no longer there for them?

It may also be that the patient makes the choice to skip treatment so that they can continue to work to keep a roof over their family and food on the table. They may feel obligated to do all that they can for as long as they can until someone else can be found to take over those responsibilities. They would never even consider spending money on themselves for treatment that may not even work when that money could pay the bills and feed their families.

No matter the reason, each person should be allowed to make their own decisions about their treatments once they have been given their options. It is the patient’s life and therefore, the patient’s decision and every single person around the patient should support the patient’s decisions. No one can walk a mile in a patient’s shoes so no one, other than the patient, can make a decision about what is best for the patient.

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