An ailing doctor's decision to die


Euthanasia and the "right to die" continue to be hot topics of debate here and around the world, in religious and secular circles. I recently wrote about a daughter who helped her mother die by allowing her to starve to death and then penned a book about it.

The following story addresses the topic from a unique perspective and with a different twist.

Three years ago, Dr. Eric Manheimer was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the throat that had spread to his lymph nodes. As a physician, Manheimer knew this was bad news. He also knew his illness was treatable with radiation and chemotherapy, and that with those treatments his chance of survival was 75 percent.

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For 35 days in a row he was given 2,000 units of radiation, along with high doses of chemotherapy. In his own words, his world shrank "to a small, sterile, asteroidal universe between the interminable nausea and the chemobrain that left my head both empty and feverish, between survival and death."

After what Manheimer describes as "one desperate hospitalization" where he had to be given blood transfusions and medication to stimulate his white blood cells, he decided he'd had enough. "I refused further radiation and chemotherapy. I lay in my bed . . . comfortable that I had made the correct decision. My doctors couldn't override it or persuade me to change my mind, but, luckily, my wife, Diana, could and did."

Manheimer is alive and well today, working as the medical director of Bellevue Hospital Center in New York. He wrote about his experience with cancer and his decision to die for The New York Times: "My dreams of dying were not the products of anxious moments of terror. The life force had simply slipped away and made me ready to die. It had also rendered me incapable of making the right decision for myself."

He had lost the will to live. He was not thinking clearly. He was suffering terribly. And by his own admission that made him incapable of making the right decision on his own.

Thankfully his wife did.

And thankfully Dr. Manheimer reports that the "recognition of vulnerability" has helped make him a better doctor.

Dr. Eric Manheimer's experience obviously doesn't apply to all situations, but it provides powerful, personal testimony to the altered state of mind that illness-and grueling treatment regimens-can produce. I hope the medical establishment is listening.

Marcia Segelstein
Marcia Segelstein


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