At age 93, Joe Yourshaw was at the end of his life. Suffering from kidney disease and other ailments, he lay in his own bed at his Pottsville home, as he wished, in hospice care, under the directions of his own living will.
During his final week in late May, according to the Washington Post, a hospice nurse made a call to check on Yourshaw, who had earlier decided to decline any medication to treat his afflictions. She learned that his daughter, Barbara Mancini, a hospital nurse who was relieving her mother as caregiver, had given him a dose of morphine. In spite of the “do not resuscitate order” and Yourshaw’s wish to die peacefully at home and not have his life and pain prolonged, the hospice nurse called 911.
Yourshaw was taken by ambulance to a hospital and given a drug antidote. And that’s where he died, four days later, agitated and upset by the fact that his daughter was now in trouble.
Outrageous as this may seem, Mancini was charged by local police with assisting suicide – action upheld by a magisterial judge on Aug. 1. And Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office, which stepped in because the local prosecutor had a conflict, is, as of this date, pursuing the case.
Mancini’s lawyer argued unsuccessfully earlier this month that Yourshaw had a constitutional right to take enough medicine to ease his pain.
The crime here is not that a dying man was administered a pain-killer on his death bed. This happens – thankfully – all the time. It is often the quiet agreement among doctor, nurses, patient and family members that the agony of death should not be prolonged.
The U.S. Supreme Court even ruled in 1994 that patients who are dying and in pain have the legal right to get prescribed medications “to alleviate that suffering, even to the point of causing unconsciousness and hastening death.”
There is a crime, though, committed by the hospice nurse and emergency medical technicians and hospital staff who ignored Joe Yourshaw’s legal rights and directions and caused him to endure a death that was anything but peaceful. And it is criminal and outrageous that the state should continue to pursue charges against his daughter.
The case has created controversy and calls for clearer laws regarding end-of-life care. What’s missing here, however, is not clarity in the law but rather a lack of common sense among law enforcement and legal authorities.
At risk is not just the freedom and reputation of one man’s caregiver but the continued availability of compassionate hospice care and the protection of living wills. Can we be sure that our wishes not to have our own lives extended artificially will be honored when that time comes? Will we be required surrender our dignity to endure pain and in our final hours for fear that our loved ones may be prosecuted for attempting to relieve it?
We urge the attorney general to consider the consequences and drop this case.