Views on the News

Captive Released After 23 Years

November 29, 2009 12:34 AM

The "right to die" controversy was recently injected with new life, with the emergence of the story of Rom Houben, a 46-year-old Belgian who was considered to be in a vegetative state for 23 years, and who doctors now believe was conscious the entire time.

Houben was injured in a car crash in 1983 when he was 20. His doctors used the Glasgow coma scale – which assesses eye, verbal and motor responses – and concluded that he could hear nothing and feel nothing.

Then, in 2006, a team of doctors discovered that he had an "almost normal" level of brain activity, capable of hearing what was being said around him, but unable to respond. Houben was suffering from a form of "locked-in syndrome," in which people are unable to speak or move but can think and reason.

Since their discovery, they have provided him with the equipment to communicate. Helped by a therapist, Houben's finger tapped on a computer touchscreen: "I was shouting, but no one could hear me." Houben further communicated that he was "alone, lonely, frustrated" in the two-plus decades that he was trapped inside a paralyzed body.

The scary thing is that the lead doctor on the team claims that "up to 43 percent of patients with disorders of consciousness are erroneously assigned a diagnosis of vegetative state."

The knee-jerk reaction to this story is: can you imagine if his family had opted to remove this "valueless" life from life support?

Interestingly, however, euthanasia proponents suggest that this discovery makes a compelling argument for their stance. In an article for the Huffington Post, bioethicist and medical historian Jacob M. Appel writes:

"...Houben's own words are haunting: 'I would scream, but no sound would come out....I became the witness to my own suffering, as doctors and nurses tried to speak to me and eventually gave up.' That sounds strikingly like a form of torture. Keep in mind that patients like this have no guarantee that their consciousness will ever be discovered.... So rather than offering a compelling reason to keep such patients alive, the horrors of enduring such a petrified existence may offer a compelling reason to let them die."

He even suggests that perhaps "some forms of suffering are so horrific that a few patients may have to die against their preferences so that others will not have to undergo years of unremitting psychological agony."

Much has been written about the Jewish view on euthanasia and the value it ascribes to life. I refer you to the following lines written by Yanki Tauber, senior editor of Chabad.org, in response to the Terri Schiavo controversy, which I feel express the view best, and even foretell the suggestion that some should die against their preferences to spare others the pain of a life that a panel of bioethicists have taken the liberty to deem worthless:

"When a society loses sight of the divine, absolute value of life, the change is at first all but imperceptible. At first it is only the weakest, most defenseless lives that are affected. Lives that have no voice—society doesn't hear them, or even goes so far as to put words into their mouths for them. But that first step is, in many ways, the most crucial one. Unless the trend is halted and reversed, it will lead to a second step and a third, and before long, we will be deep in the barbaric woods where everything is relative, where the right to life is entirely relative to power, wealth and physical strength.

"For unless life has absolute value, it ultimately has no value....and before long, we're deep in the jungle."

(For the full article, see The Value of Life.)

This episode also provides insight in another, more spiritual area.

The human being is comprised of body and soul. The soul, "a veritable part of G‑d," is aware that human existence has a purpose, as defined in the Torah. It is the soul's ambition and task to make the human mind conscious of its holy mission.

I am afraid to consider that sometimes a person can go two decades – or three, four, five, six or more... – throughout which the soul is "shouting, but no one could hear." The soul is "witness to its own suffering," as the signals it broadcasts are ignored. Surely the soul is "lonely and frustrated" all those years it is trapped inside a body that is completely unresponsive to its nervous system.

The difference is that unlike Houben, about whom "doctors and nurses tried to speak to and eventually gave up," the One who puts us through this ordeal doesn't give up. He continues to provide all the help necessary to achieve a complete recovery.

It is up to us to hearken to the soul's sometimes silent cry. And when we finally listen in, all the years of suffering become a catalyst for a future life of unparalleled quality, justifying the decades of its pain.

Musings on the New York City Marathon

November 1, 2009

Today New York City hosts its annual marathon.

I saw an interesting article by Juliet Macur in the Sports Section of the October 23 edition of The New York Times. The article – "Plodders Have a Place, but Is It in a Marathon?" – addressed the "straggler" issue at the NYC Marathon, those who finish long after the real marathoners have finished, eaten and showered. "It's a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours," said Adrienne Wald, 54, the women's cross-country coach at the College of New Rochelle, who ran her first marathon in 1984. "It used to be that running a marathon was worth something—there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it's, 'How low is the bar?'"

Real marathoners seem to think the bar should be set at a 6-hour marathon (that's an average of 4.4 MPH for 26 miles). The "Plodders" don't appreciate the elitism of the marathoners. They feel that the world is better off with people who can run a marathon at whatever pace and the more entrants into the field, the better for the local economy. A leader of the Plodder movement commented: "The complainers are just a bunch of ornery, grumpy people who want the marathon all to themselves and don't want the slower runners. But too bad. The sport is fueled and funded by people like me."

The Berlin Marathon has a cut-off time of 6:15. Those that are still on the course are literally asked to leave the course and go to their hotels.

This article was brought to my attention by a friend of mine this past Sunday as we were leisurely rounding our third lap in the highly competitive Friendship Circle one mile walk...

The Times article couldn't have been better "timed." We read it on the day before our Patriarch Abraham was introduced in the public Torah readings; Abraham, the consummate man of kindness.

And the article reminded me of part of the eulogy that Rabbi Nissan Alpert of blessed memory delivered at the funeral of his beloved Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory – renowned 20th century halachic authority, universally known as "Reb Moshe" – in March of 1986.

Often rabbis are asked for approbations or letters of recommendation. It could be for a book, a letter advocating a certain cause, etc. Many rabbis will not sign such a letter until they have thoroughly investigated the person requesting help, the content of the book or the worthiness of the cause. Reb Moshe, however, was known to sign the letters very often without asking too many questions. Rabbi Alpert addressed this in the eulogy:

A most distinguished person once asked me why Reb Moshe consents to write letters of support for every organization and individual who approaches him. "Doesn't he realize that he is thus cheapening himself?" the man inquired. "At least," the fellow continued, "he should investigate to determine if their stories and needs are totally true."

In fact, Reb Moshe was well aware of the little regard people accorded his letters. He once asked a prospective recipient of an endorsement, "Honestly, how can my letter help you? I've written thousands of similar ones!"

I responded that we find the terms chesed (kindness) and emet (truth) frequently juxtaposed in the Torah, yet chesed is always written first. If a man begins with kindness, tempering it with truth, good is likely to come of it. However, if he begins with truth, he will never come to kindness—and who knows how true his "truth" will be?

This was clearly a guiding principle for Reb Moshe. Whenever someone was in need, he would do whatever possible to help, before weighing any other considerations... Sometimes this even entailed overlooking things not in accord with his perspective; but it would not deter him.—from Hanoch Teller's Sunset pp.93

I think Reb Moshe's legacy helps us understand the debate between the marathoners and the plodders. Emet? Marathons should be for serious athletes who can compete and qualify. Chesed? Why limit it to the elite?

I say that the serious joggers should be thrilled and flattered that the more amateur and novice runner joins them. What does it matter to them what speed they finish? That's not the trait of Abraham.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...
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