Easter thoughts and feelings about our "right to live and/or right to die" as in the case of Terri Schiavo

By Joe Orosa Aliling

The recent controversy that compelled the US Congress to work late at night to pass a bipartisan bill to keep Terri Schiavo alive, and consequently, obliged George W. Bush to get up from bed and sign this emergency bill into law brought back a lot of memories in my personal and family life.

In our particular case, however, everyone concerned knew exactly the patientís wish in case she slid into comma. Our bishop and church leaders knew. Our children and relatives knew. Her team of doctors and our friends who lived nearby knew. Rachel even wrote down the program for her funeral.

For almost seven years, Rachel had been fighting her terminal pancreatic cancer courageously, which had metastasized into her liver already when they discovered it. They had successfully arrested its spread into her lymph nodes, spleen, kidneys, lungs and breasts. Even to those in the field of advanced medical science and technology, some still considered a "miracle" because students and practitioners alike at UCSF tried to learn more about the biochemistry of Rachelís body. As a food scientist, Rachel would often explain to a group of medical students and their teacher how her body defended itself to sustain life.

On August 15, 1997, Rachel was confined at the ICU (intensive care unit) of the UCSF (University of California in San Francisco) hospital. Her attending oncology doctors, Dr. Alan Venook and Dr. Emily Bergsland, informed Rachel that "it was the end of the line" for her. They were offering Rachel a choice on where to die -- at home or at the hospital. While they were numbered amongst the best oncologists on the West Coast, Rachel apparently had reached the limits of their medical knowledge and expertise. At this time, they had ruled out pancreatic and/or liver transplant. She was "on deck" some time ago, waiting for a donor that would give a good match for her organs. Now, her heart and body could no longer sustain a transplant operation and good recovery.

On August 17, 1997, her doctors asked me to arrange a meeting with our bishop, Cliff Brower, and our ward Relief Society president, Mavis Odom, a professional nurse. The purpose of the meeting was to agree on a plan on how to make it very comfortable for Rachel to die either at home or at the hospital, depending on her choice.

Since Rachel was inflicted with cancer, this issue of personal right to live or die frequently confronted her and me. To our understanding, "to live" is a matter of privilege more than a right. Thus, life can be taken away anytime. Rachel and I celebrated life everyday. We drank from the same cup.

Rachelís unwavering faith in God had sustained her, and she already had accepted graciously the will of the Lord. Rachel always appreciated the dawn of a new day in her life. As a gesture of her gratitude, she heeded the Lordís admonition that "if you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40) At the end of each day, Rachel would kneel down and honestly give an accounting of her stewardship as a wife, a mother and a help-maid of God. In response, the Lord blessed her with another day to live.

One of the most enjoyable moments in our daily routine was our early morning conversation in bed. We planned for the future, even beyond her death. Rachel would always tease me about my life without her. She seriously "scoped it out" among our friends and acquaintances on who could be her best surrogate. She even came up with a short list and set me up with a few of her favorites.

Of course, she also considered my personal choice to remain a widower. She got me into a training program for self-reliance and independent living. She taught me how to wash and iron my clothes, cook decent meals, and acquire other living skills.

On August 31, 1997, however, Rachel did not have the usual strength that she always had on the Sabbath. Rachel knew it was time.

With the Melchizedek Priesthood that we hold, our sons and I gathered in a circle around Rachel and bestowed her a blessing of comfort. As always, Rachel was beautiful in her Sunday dress. Rachel slowly walked to our car parked on the driveway.

Bishop Brower dropped in to check on Rachel. Seeing Rachel in the front passenger seat, Bishop Brower asked "Rachel, are you ready to go?" Rachel replied "Yes, Bishop." The bishop asked again, "Rachel, are you really ready to go?" Rachel replied, "Yes, Bishop." The bishop asked for the third time, "Rachel, do you understand my question? Are you ready to go?" Rachel replied again, "Yes, Bishop, I do understand your question. Iím really ready to go."

Rachel instructed Joe to start the car and drive across town in Fremont. She asked Joey and me to take the backseat. The beautiful scenery on our broadside silently and buoyantly floated along. Soon after, we were on the freeway headed toward Sacramento. This was our familyís "symbolic ride to eternity." At about 4:30 p.m., Rachel fell asleep. Shortly thereafter, the "911 paramedic" pronounced her dead in Sacramento.

Rachel was always in control of her life. She "died with her boots on" and dressed in her Sunday best. She chose not to die in her bedroom at home nor in a hospital bed at UCSF. She had her final "symbolic ride to eternity" with her family. Rightly or wrongly, Rachel and her family believed in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We also believed in the promise and blessing that Easter Sunday brings, i.e., that "families can live together for time and all eternity."

May you and your family have an enjoyable Happy Easter is my humble hope and prayer, in Jesus Christís name. Amen.