Death is inevitable, so is pain. But as the saying goes, suffering is optional. This perhaps sums up the entire debate pertaining to life support. For as long as life support has been a natural recommendation of doctors and a natural reaction of family and relatives of the ailing, it has been debated and its merits have been pitted against its demerits. Let us begin our discussion with an obvious reality.
No one wants to lose a loved one. At the same time, no one wants to lose hope that a loved one can recover from coma or any serious medical condition that compels the patient to be put on life support. It is quintessential that we look at the pros and cons of life support in a completely pragmatic and objective manner. Having subjective perspectives will not lead to a proper assessment.
Pros of Life Support
1. Staying Alive, Chances of Survival
Life support keeps a patient alive. There are many conditions that render a person incapable of moving, breathing, feeding and one or more organs of the patient may fail to function. In most cases, the organs affected by the health condition do function but minimally. Life support is the only way to keep a person alive and to wait and see if the patient recovers. There is always a possibility of the body recovering from the adverse impacts of a particular disease or ailment. Unless doctors are completely sanguine that a patient cannot recover and can state a hundred percent that life support is not going to help at all, one can always nurture hope. In the process, life support becomes a method of enhancing the chances of survival. There have been cases where patients have recovered from the brink of organ failure and obvious death. There are instances, on record, where the patients have been put on life support, have recovered fully and have resumed their lives. It is however conceded that the success rates as such aren’t staggering.
2. A Choice & Hope
Life support offers a choice, to patients and to the family or relatives of the patients. It is a wish of many that they be put on life support and be allowed to fight as long as one can and try to recover and resume life. Many families would rather hold onto the hope and wait before quitting on the chances of recovery. When all medical treatments or scope of intervention fail and do not have any further control over the state or condition of a patient, it is only life support that offers some glimmer of optimism.
3. Coping with Death
Life support is often helpful for families and friends, especially if the patient is young or if it is an untimely and unnatural situation. With very old parents or grandparents, one can still come to terms with death because of old age and more than one health conditions. For kids, young adults and even those in their forties and fifties, families and friends find it very hard to accept untimely deaths. Life support can allow the time the families need to accept the inevitable. People across the world suffer from depression and many other conditions following the death of a loved one. Such fallouts can be prevented or controlled to an extent with the help of life support.
4. Organ Donation
Life support facilitates organ donation. It is not uncommon for people to donate more than one of their vital organs. Should a patient be put on life support, then the organs will be functional and they can be donated in perfect condition. More important than that is the fact that organ donation can be planned. A patient can be kept on life support till the organ recipients are found and there can be instant transplants. From attending to emergencies to having planned transplants, for every patient put on life support, the life of more than one person can be improved. The lives of the recipients can get transformed and become infinitely better.
Cons of Life Support
1. Unending Agony
Euthanasia has always been a contentious issue. Life support has often been seen as a variant of euthanasia. It eventually boils down to a simple question. Should a patient have the right to live, should someone else be allowed to take a call, if a patient is in a coma or has suffered brain death then should he or she be allowed to live on life support, possibly enduring the agony and if it is right to deny life support to someone, thus doing away with hope. There is no simple answer to these questions. The truth is that the patient as well as the family and friends would have to live with the agony. While there isn’t much scientific data suggesting the kind of pain that a patient on life support endures or experiences, most doctors know that life support is not a very convenient medical treatment. It is certainly not easy for a patient who is dead in more ways than alive to be kept alive, almost forcibly. The families and friends would also have to deal with agony and the uncertainty of if the patient would recover at all. The ongoing pain is certainly not desirable, for anyone.
2. Health Problems
Life support, purely as a medical treatment, is not without its share of demerits. The process may keep a person alive and may increase the chances of recovering but there is an equal chance that the patient may suffer an array of side effects. Life support may force a particular organ to function or attend to the basic needs of the body to stay alive. But it may cause numerous other health conditions. From that perspective, even if a person recovers after having been put on life support, then the true nature of recovery and if the person would be healthy and have a long life are not certain.
3. Astronomical Costs
Life support is costly. Having someone put on life support can drain all the money that a family has. The sad reality is that all the money being spent may be completely futile. There are innumerable families that have been financially devastated due to medical expenses and life support is certainly one of the more expensive treatments. Every day a person is on life support would stress a family and it is even more worrisome because the family may willingly do it and might prolong the life support because of the hope that one may recover. Once a patient is put on life support, it is never easy to undo the decision. Every day a family may think that it is time to stop life support and the family may wonder what if another day can make a difference. This obvious dilemma has lead many families to have a loved one on life support for weeks, months and even years.
4. Ineffective, Futile
One of the biggest criticisms of life support is that it emerged as a life saving procedure but it hasn’t proved to be so. History has shown that life support cannot actually help people to recover. It just prolongs the ailing and, almost always, unconscious life. There are ethical, moral, financial and legal dilemmas that one has to deal with. Today, a majority of doctors consider life support as a stopgap procedure.