Pull the Plug on Impatience with Patients: An audio lecture by Drs. Robert Potter and Paul Louis Metzger

Introduction by Paul Louis Metzger

Some of you may recall the Saturday Night Live skit titled “Pull the Plug” starring Steve Martin, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Jane Curtin. Steve Martin plays a medical doctor overseeing the care of a boy named “Buddy,” who is in a coma (John Belushi). The doctor discusses with Buddy’s parents (Bill Murray and Jane Curtin) their boy’s condition, and how he is basically in a vegetative state. There is a pause when the doctor tells the parents that the machine keeping Buddy alive costs them $500 a day. After the pause, the father urges the doctor to pull the plug. The doctor states that he cannot “deliberately” pull the plug, so they set about “accidentally” trying to pull it from the wall. And yet, no matter how hard they try, the doctor and parents cannot disconnect the plug from the outlet. Then, all of a sudden, Buddy comes out of the coma and catches them in the act.   

The strangely humorous skit raises all kinds of philosophical/theological and ethical questions pertaining to end-of-life care. For example, what constitutes meaningful human life? Well-functioning brain states and motor skills? Low financial risks, including medical costs? Who makes the determination concerning end-of-life decisions? The doctor, the parents, the patient…? Immediately after being informed of the high costs of the life-support system, the father miraculously remembers (actually—manipulatively concocts) Buddy telling him about a year earlier that he wanted his parents to pull the plug on a life support machine if he were ever to fall into a coma.

Whether deliberate or accidental, our culture has struggled to account for patients’ wishes pertaining to end-of-life decisions as well as guard against reducing their value to financial terms or biological states. While economic issues are certainly important, by no means are they the only important considerations. It is important that we guard against reducing human value to monetary figures in our free market society. We must also guard against reducing people to the material aspects of their being.

Recently, I wrote a blog post for my world religions course, which at the time, was addressing the subject of death and dying from the vantage point of various religions. The title of the blog post is “Be Patient with Patients: They Are Far More than Temporarily Animated Corpses.” In the brief essay, I argued that we must preserve the dignity of patients who are nearing the end of their lives: we must not quantify or objectify them, for they are not temporarily animated corpses. Rather, we must approach them with a sense of wonder:

One can never really quantify or measure someone’s value, including a patient. After all, “We are…ends in ourselves with irreducible meaning and value as living persons in the historical and anticipatory contexts of animated community. How then shall we relate to each other as fragile specimens of vital mystery no matter the duration? With the well-intentioned and patient urgency of inter-subjective wonder.

Someone who approaches patients with a profound sense of “inter-subjective wonder” is Dr. Robert Potter, the former Chair of the Bioethics Study Group at Oregon Health and Science University and the Assistant Director of the OHSU Center for Ethics in Health Care. He serves as one of the science advisors for Multnomah Biblical Seminary’s AAAS grant in incorporating science into our curriculum (Refer to “Science for Seminaries” for more information). Dr. Potter joined me for the class in my World Religions course to discuss the blog post themes and advance the conversation with students. In short, we sought to articulate the various factors that must be accounted for in addressing end-of-life care for patients. Such consideration requires pain-staking patience. However, it is well worth it, since the people in question and their wishes are invaluable. We must account for them. Otherwise, we are pulling the plug on human significance not just for them, but for our whole society. Refer here to the audio of our presentation.