Some of our stories about the coronavirus have been serious, although because we believe laughter is something we need more than ever right now, some have been frivolous. But this one, by Denver boomer expert and author Brent Green, is downright important. Because it’s about an issue that has direct impact on just about any baby boomer who gets sick with the virus. Brent writes with some background. Namely, he knows what it feels like to suffocate.
Trapped inside an oxygen tent, struggling to breathe, I nearly died from bronchial asthma. In fact I nearly died twice: at age four, and again at five. Still remembering those hospitalizations vividly, I know what it feels like to suffocate. Which helps me understand the suffering of the victims today of the coronavirus.
Now, at 70, I’m one of the older baby boomers. During college I became a jogging and gym enthusiast and have not been out of shape for five decades. But I cannot change my age or history of lung disease, and I’m a male— all potentially exclusionary criteria for extreme medical interventions.
That’s why it can be alarming to read recent news articles outlining a decision framework that hospitals may follow if ventilators remain in short supply. Criteria for exclusion from ventilator care includes advanced age, severe cognitive impairment, chronic heart disease, and various lung diseases.
If I’m infected with Covid-19 and require emergency hospital care, I could be doomed, based upon current decision criteria. Older age plus co-morbidities get higher exclusion scores.
Two medical ethicists quoted in one article are promoting a scoring checklist that many hospitals apparently intend to follow, should exclusionary life-and-death decisions become necessary. To which I object. So since I’m a member of the Boomer Generation— which means I have an activist’s predilection, a history of challenging authority— I wrote a pointed email to these ethicists. It can be interpreted as deriding ageism in preference for classism, and that is not my intent, other than to illustrate capricious decision-making.
Which is the better societal moral choice for allocating a hospital’s last available Covid-19 ventilator: A 70-year-old with COPD who is a renowned subject-area expert and multi-book author; or a 30-year-old without other chronic diseases, but an uneducated person destined to spend a career cleaning hotel rooms?
Your hospital decision framework apparently does not factor in qualitative variables. Further, you know as well as I do that celebrated victims of the virus will receive qualitative advantages over non-celebrities, old age and co-morbidities notwithstanding.
Are more life-years of greater societal value than future life-contribution potential? Would you allow an elderly Albert Einstein to die in favor of a young manual laborer?
Segmenting life-and-death medical decisions by age, gentlemen, is ageism.
The larger moral crisis of this coronavirus pandemic involves nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators to treat all hospitalized, virus-infected patients, no matter their age, gender, occupation, life-years potential, preexisting conditions, or health status upon admission.
Most Covid-19 patients placed on ventilators have not survived, with death rates as high as 80-percent. Those who do survive prolonged periods on a ventilator under sedation face possible future heart attacks, kidney disease, and cognitive impairments. Thus, I have informed my wife that I do not want to be attached to a ventilator. I know what it feels like to suffocate. I prefer hospice care and palliative sedation, which can lessen the raw agonies of breathlessness and could give me one final chance to remain conscious and connected.
As boomers, we are in our sixties and seventies, the time of life associated with “The Golden Years,” traditionally presenting prospects for travel, learning, and easygoing lifestyles.
Today’s harsh realities are reminiscent of the infringements and trepidations that the Vietnam War forced on our generation half-a-century ago. That unpopular war disrupted our early adult years when we might have been free to explore and prepare for the future. Instead, some confronted political authorities and protested, derailing their careers. Others enlisted and fought in the war. Or, were drafted.
Now a pandemic is disrupting our early retirement years, spoiling untroubled dreams for the future. Alas, more of us may confront what it feels like to suffocate.
Brent is the lead author of a book about Boomers: “1969: Are You Still Listening?: Stories & Essays”