About a month ago I wrote a piece on the alleged mercy killing of patients in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina. As the weeks unfold, it appears there may be some merit to these allegations, and Louisiana’s attorney general has called for a complete investigation of the facts surrounding the possible euthanasia of critically ill patients at Memorial Hospital.
Little did I know, when I wrote that piece, that I would soon find myself right smack in the middle of hurricane Wilma in Cancun Mexico, a devastating category 4 storm which destroyed much of Cancun. While celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary, the storm headed straight toward the Yucatan peninsula, with winds of 150 mph and rainfall upwards of 60 inches.
My husband and I ended up spending the next five days in close quarters with 300 of our new best friends. To say the experience was frightening would be a gross understatement (I still feel shaken and am reeling from the storm)! Wilma was unique, in that it was a slow moving hurricane. So, for 15 straight hours, we were barricaded inside the classrooms of a school where we had been bussed to for shelter and to ride out the storm. And after 15 hours we were only halfway through the storm!
We had no electricity, no running water, limited food and water (a 3-day supply) and very precarious bathroom facilities. It was a terrifying time. My children were back home and we had little if any communication with them. At times we wondered if we would survive the storm. Once the hurricane passed we were confronted with the reality that Cancun was no more.
David Smith, our hotel general manager said there was no Cancun to go back to. No hotels. The airport was shut. The roads were flooded. The town had been destroyed. The next two days after the hurricane were spent with feelings of utter despair and fear. People were sick and running out of their medications. Hygiene and clean water became a very real concern in our shelter. Food and water supplies were running low. And safety was a concern as rumors spread that 600 prisoners from the local prison had just set themselves free.
But the untold story is that of unconditional sacrifice and service to one another. I have been the beneficiary of countless acts of generosity and incredible kindness and patience. All of us in our shelter were treated with dignity and respect. There was camaraderie and a willingness to do whatever was necessary to help one another through this ordeal. It is a story of human flourishing and excellence, a time of working together for our future, our very survival.
Experiences like this (hopefully one that I will never have to endure again) remind me again that the core of bioethics is about human dignity. And though human dignity has in many ways lost its meaning and become an ambiguous phrase that we passively use in bioethics discussions, it is so much more than that! It is an active phrase to describe how we ought to treat each other, ﾅ with dignity, whether we are very young or very old, or infirm, or healthy.
The stories of possible euthanasia during Katrina help me see what can happen when our society loses sight of what it means to have human dignity. And though my experience during Wilma may have been different, a key to our survival was in how we treated each otherﾅ with dignity.
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