Choosing To Live

Robin Marantz Henig describes the complicated lives of Brooke Hopkins, who suffered injuries that left him dependent on life-sustaining technology, and his wife Peggy Battin, a lifelong advocate for the right to death:

The only consistent choice Brooke has made — and he’s made it again and again every time he gives informed consent for a feeding tube or a diaphragmatic pacer, every time he permits treatment of an infection or a bedsore — is the one to stay alive. This is the often-unspoken flip side of the death-with-dignity movement that Peggy has long been a part of. Proponents generally focus on only one branch of the decision tree: the moment of choosing death. There’s much talk of living wills, D.N.R. orders, suicide, withdrawal of life support, exit strategies. Brooke’s experience has forced Peggy to step back from that moment to an earlier one: the moment of confronting one’s own horrific circumstances and choosing, at least for now, to keep on living. But the reasons for that choice are complicated too. Brooke told me that he knows Peggy is a strong person who will recover from his death and move on. But he has also expressed a desire not to abandon her. And Peggy worries that sometimes Brooke is saying he wants to keep fighting and stay alive not because that’s what he wants, but because he thinks that’s what she wants him to want. And to further complicate things, it’s not even clear what Peggy really wants him to want. Her own desires seem to shift from day to day. One thing that doesn’t change, though: She is deeply afraid of misunderstanding Brooke’s wishes in a way that can’t be undone. The worst outcome, to her, would be to think that this time he really does want to die and then to feel as if she might have been wrong.