Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Medical Science in The Post

There is an interesting article in the Washington Post today about starvation. Although it points out that there is very little research done on end-of-life care – most health care facilities find it unethical to conduct studies on dying patients – it does a good job of describing what most likely happens when a patient starves.

The effect on organs is varied and profound. Ammonia-like substances have a sedating effect on the brain. High concentrations of potassium alter the heartbeat and eventually stop it -- which is the mechanism of the injection used for execution.

Whatever the mechanism of death, experts are virtually unanimous in saying it does not appear to be painful.

"You go into a uremic coma. You go into a stuporous state, and you stay that way until you die," said William A. Knaus, who co-directed the intensive care unit at George Washington University Medical Center for 20 years and is now at the University of Virginia. "There is absolutely no indication that the body reacts to this with stress."

[Porter] Storey said that in his hospice practice he has "sat at the bedside of thousands of patients as they died, and many of them could tell me how they were feeling when they had gone weeks without eating and drinking." What they told him, he said, was that they did not feel bad at all. Their chief discomfort was a dry mouth. That could be relieved by sips of water or by swabbing the mouth with a water-soaked sponge.

You can take this article for what it’s worth. But I would trust the opinion of doctors before politicians when it comes to the symptoms of starvation.