The stories of Ariel Sharon and Happy Fernandez are a study in contrasts.
Sharon, as we all know, is being kept alive in an Israeli hospital seven years after suffering a massive stroke. He was prime minister at the time, had just dramatically pulled Israel out of Gaza and founded a new centrist political party, Kadima. The man who once was feared and reviled as a ruthless military leader had begun to look and act like, well, a statesman.
And then his body stopped.
Sharon, who is now 84, lies in an Israeli hospital through the wishes of his two sons, who are in charge of his care. A couple of weeks ago came a flurry of stories suggesting that doctors were able to detect “significant” brain activity when he heard familiar voices and was shown family photographs. In an interview last year, Gilad Sharon said that his father sometimes responds to requests and, even though he is fed intravenously, has put on weight.
But the chances of him regaining any sort of normal human function are, his doctors say, very, very slim.
Contrast that with the way Happy Fernandez’s family dealt with her massive stroke.
Fernandez was an extraordinarily brave and smart woman known to just about everyone in Philadelphia for a long life of service, first as an education and peace activist, then as a city councilwoman, and finally as president of Moore College of Art & Design. Though deeply wedded to her Christian faith, and married to an ordained minister, a celebration of her life was held in a large synagogue, reflecting her family’s interest in religions beyond their own faith.
Her death came with stunning speed. She was diagnosed with lung cancer just before Christmas and underwent a successful operation in early January. Then, as she was being readied for discharge from the hospital, she suffered a massive stroke on January 10, and died nine days later. She was 73.
It was how she died that impressed me. A survivor of polio at age 10, she later said that every day was a gift and that attitude shaped her explicit directives to her family. My friend Dotty Brown received family permission to publish Fernandez’s addendum to her living will. She wrote:
“I do not want health care services to be wasted or used to keep me alive when by accident, stroke or other mishaps I am not able to speak, feed myself, walk, see, hear and/or otherwise function as a human being… I want any public or private family or insurance dollars to be used to nurture the development of the next generation, here in the United States or in other democracies such as India, who are faced with huge problems of poverty and the mistreatment of women and children.”
She wanted no health care resources “wasted” on her, no surgeries or drugs used to keep her alive. Fernandez acknowledged that this request — a demand, really — would be difficult for her husband and sons to carry out, but she asked that they respect her wishes and not prolong her life in any way. And they complied.
These two examples of a family making end-of-life decisions on behalf of someone suddenly rendered mute and incapable of expressing opinions are, I admit, extreme. Most comatose patients who are kept alive don’t last seven years. And most who sign living wills, myself included, don’t so explicitly rule out extra measures the way that Fernandez did.
Having put both my parents in hospice care before they died, I deeply appreciate the ethical and moral dilemma of making such decisions, even when the patient’s wishes are known, as they were in my case. My understanding of Jewish law is that such decisions are supported but not mandated.
If the Sharon sons truly believe that their father will somehow emerge, then that is their choice to keep him alive. But I cannot help admiring the strength and communal compassion of Happy Fernandez’s words, and the way she chose to die.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and it has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.