Medicare, end of life and living our theology

Medicare is consistently a wedge issues for both sides of the political spectrum. The issue becomes even more controversial in the reality that more than 30 percent of the cost of Medicare comes in the last year of life.

Unfortunately the discussion ranges from the silly, such as the macabre predictions of “death panels,” to the seeming lack of acknowledgement by some that Medicare cannot be sustained in its present form for future generations. Christians from both sides grow weary of the lack of genuine effort to solve the dilemma and often opt out of the discussion.

That should not be an option for us if we take seriously the New Testament’s call to citizenship. However, our best contribution to the discussion may be our theology and how we live it rather than our politics.

Hopefully our theology has been developed through years of study and testing it in the real world. By testing I mean living it in our own lives and observing it in the lives of others. Paul wrote to Timothy in II Timothy 3:14, “Continue in what you have learned because you know those from whom you learned it.”

In 1957 Richard Hopper was called to be the pastor of First Baptist Church in Ardmore Okla. I was 15 years old. From that day until the day he died he was my pastor, mentor and dear friend. He continued in that role for me even when I became a pastor.

Richard and his wife, Mary Edna, were an excellent team in ministry. She was a strong woman in her own right, and they both were leaders among Baptists in Oklahoma. The life lessons they taught me are more numerous than I can recall at any given moment, but the most important lesson I learned from Richard and Mary Edna was how to live the last years of life, and how to die.

The Hoppers raised three sons who became very productive men of faith. It is with their permission that I tell this personal and somewhat painful story of Richard and Mary Edna’s final years.

When Richard retired the couple moved to Norman, Okla., to live out their retirement years. They had 14 good years in retirement, with Richard serving as interim pastor three times in Belgium.

It all changed when Mary Edna suffered a serious stroke. The most debilitating effect was that it left her throat paralyzed and made her unable to speak clearly. She could not swallow, and as a result had to have a feeding tube in her stomach and a tracheotomy tube in her throat. At night a ventilator was attached to her tracheotomy tube to ensure her breathing.

Richard insisted on taking her home and becoming her primary care-giver. He received special training to take care of her various needs. He would occasionally have some professional help, allowing him to get out of the house or to preach when he had an opportunity.

This went on for three-and-a-half years. As I long as I knew him Richard truly wanted to be like Jesus — not in an overtly pious kind of way but in attitude and demeanor. My guess is that Richard was never more Christ-like than he was in those years of taking care of his beloved Mary Edna. Then the unthinkable happened. Richard died suddenly from complications from pneumonia.

Mary Edna had to go to a nursing care facility, which was reluctant to take her because of the ventilator. Mary Edna chose to no longer use the ventilator; probably thinking she would go to sleep one night and not wake up.

While Richard was still with her, she had a reason to keep on living. In the facility she was miserable and somewhat perturbed with the Lord for leaving her here.

One day approximately five months after Richard died she was talking to her sons about this and one of them remarked that it was the feeding tube that was keeping her alive, and if she wanted to have it removed they would not object.

Her son David thought she would want to think about that for a few days, but she immediately responded: “I think my doctor is in the building. Go see if you can find him. I want to talk to him about that.”

She and her doctor discussed the matter. He told her the feeding tube would not actually be removed, but they could stop the food and water. They would continue to use the feeding tube for medication, and that would keep her comfortable until she died. Mary Edna immediately and courageously made the decision to do what the doctor outlined for her, and she died 10 days later.

My personal theology, which I learned over the years and observed in the life of my friends Richard and Mary Edna Hopper, does not give me the option of ending life by euthanasia. It does, however, offer me the option to refuse a medical means of extending life, even when Medicare is available to cover the majority of the cost.

None of us knows how we would handle such circumstances in the last years and the last days of our own lives. Dying and death are such personal experiences and so unique to the moment that none of us can know for sure.

What we do know is that how we live our last years and how we die is our last most powerful opportunity to live our theology and to bear witness to our faith in Christ.

This article originally ran on the ABPnews website on September 28, 2012.

Gary Cook

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Gary Cook is pastor at Gaston Oaks Baptist Church in Dallas.

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  • bassboatwillie

    the silly, such as the macabre predictions of “death panels,”
    Unfortunately, Gary you are wrong on this. This is not silly. It is a reality.   I am not trying to argue with you but I think you need to search this more fully. The health care is a mess. Was before Obama and is worse since he came in. Obama being unfit for office has nothing to do with gender, race, nationality or any other category. He is just not what America needs. We should admit we have made a mistake with him and try to endure the next few years until he is gone.

  • LauraIngramLemley

    Thank you for being willing to write about this topic with such grace.  These end-of-life decisions are so hard to make and sometimes people who choose not to use all available medical means to prolong their physical existance are seen as “quitters” in the fight against their illness or infirmity.  Everyone is going to die of something, sometime.  It is up to each individual and their loved ones to fully discuss and consider all of their options for treatment or refusing treatment.  In the end, those who walk with the Lord can look forward to the end of suffering and eternity in God’s love.  That is not defeat, but victory.