Death channels

One night, I was alone with Larry in his room, while the night nurse was elsewhere in the building. He was due for another morphine dose in a few hours, so the previous dose was probably starting to wear off. For the first time in days, Larry stirred, and seemed to wake up. He made a faint moaning noise. I got up and leaned closer, and for the only time during the last month of his life, he spoke. It was just two raspy words: “Help me!”

I ran into the hallway and got the nurse, describing to her what had happened. Her response? “He must be in pain!” She came in and quickly gave him another dose of morphine. Before he faded back to sleep Larry made one last gesture: He shook his head, as if to say “No no no.” And then he went unconscious again. He never woke up after that, the nurses ensuring that he was drugged up at all times. He died three days later without saying another word or regaining consciousness.

What killed him? Well, the doctors would likely say he died of AIDS. But the direct cause of his death was, basically, starvation and dehaydration. Which, I later learned, is what actually kills many patients in hospice care, who often die from the withholding of nutrition rather than from the more slow-moving effects of their terminal illnesses.