Imagine you and your friends plan to spend a day mountain biking in your local park. You’re having a great time, getting dirty, getting exercise, and seeing some beautiful sights. Imagine as you are trailing down a large hill, your bike gets caught up in some tree roots and everything goes black. You wake up in a hospital unable to move your arms or legs and you are intubated by a respirator just to help you breathe. All you wanted to do was take a little bike ride and now you are fighting for your life. No one is sure of what your recovery will be. After a few weeks’ time you are still unable to move and still need the ventilator to help you breathe – to help keep you alive. For me, this is not a way to live. (I actually have a Living Will that states that I am never to be intubated or resuscitated.) Is this a way for you to live? Do you keep up hope that one day you will recover? Do you live day in and day out in a bed with a tube in your throat helping you breath? Or do you just want to take your loss’s, know you lived a good life, and decide to have them remove you from the ventilator – even though you know you will not survive. Suppose you choose to be removed. It seems like since it is your life it should be your decision. Now suppose you aren’t conscious. Suppose you do not want to live this way, but you have no legal document stating this. Imagine it is up to your parents or your significant other to make this decision for you. Or worse yet, imagine you are the one making the decision to keep a family member or loved one on a ventilator or not. After consideration, time, and moral thinking, you decide it would be in your family member’s best interest to be removed from the ventilator. Does the hospital just follow your orders and do as you say? Do they take your word for it that your loved one wouldn’t want to live this way? More times than not, a bioethics board will be brought in on this decision.
Bioethics, while not a prominent every day part of life in a hospital, is still a driving force behind the type of care you receive while you are a patient. Bioethics is the study of ethical and moral implications that arise from medical research as well as your typical day to day practice of medicine. It involves issues relating to the beginning and end of human life, all the way from issues relating to in vitro fertilization and abortion to euthanasia and palliative care. Bioethicists weigh in on topics such as the use of stem cells for research to a patient refusing life-saving treatment. Most hospitals and medical facilities have what we call a bioethics board. On this board sits one or more bioethicists, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and doctors. Their job is to take cases, such as the one mentioned above, and decide if the correct decision is being made. They aren’t there to deny people of their wishes to be taken of ventilators or to try a new, but experimental drug, but rather to make sure the decisions being made are of sound mind and that all the information needed to make these decisions is available to the patient and/or their family.
With the advancement in experimental research and controversial medicine, bioethics is a fast growing discipline. It may seem sad, or even invasive, that we need a board of people to make sure that a decision we make for ourselves or a loves one is the “correct” decision, but in today’s world of legal abundance, it’s quite necessary.