Pain as your partner

“It’s definitely rheumatoid arthritis,” the doctor said. “Go to the nurses’ station. Your nurse will explain the medication, the tests, and all the other details.”

The world was getting on with its business outside. My world had just stopped. This was not good news.

The nurse was cheery and professional. While she went through her basic spiel for the newly diagnosed, I stared at the sheet of paper she had given me. I only remember the title: “Pain as your partner”.

I quietly wondered in my mind who the idiot was who had coined the phrase. Someone who definitely hadn’t partnered with pain. Who probably felt that the wording had a nice rhythm to it.

It was effective, I grant you that. I will never forget the words.

This was in 1998; a time when the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis had once again turned a corner. Research showed that aggressive medication was called for from the start. New, effective drugs became available.

A few years later the “Pain as you partner” sheets were gone from the nurses’ station. The new pamphlets were much more hopeful. No more partnering with pain. At least on paper.

In practice many arthritis patients still partner with pain. You never know where the pain will pop up next. It can be anywhere from your toes to your jaw.

One day your left knee hurts, a few days later your partner moves on to the right knee. Then the trip continues: left- right, right- left, one joint, two joints, seven joints. No wonder some people think arthritis patients are faking it. They always have their braces and supports on different body parts.

Suddenly, one morning you wake up and realise that the inflammation is gone. Your partner in pain has taken a day off. It might be a day, a week, a month, or maybe a year. Even several years if your lucky. This partner leaves no “will be back on ……” notes on the kitchen counter.

Pain will be back, but in the meantime life’s a blast.

In a way pain is like any life partner; you  try to understand it, take care of it, learn to live with its quirks.

Sadly this partner has some nasty traits. When every movement hurts for months on end, you would gladly give all your worldly savings for a divorce. Since none can be had, you consider jumping into a car and driving into a wall – for a fleeting moment. Then sanity takes over.

While all of this goes on, the world gets on with its business. People share their concerns, be they home or job related: the heartbreaks, the missed job opportunities, the life threatening operations. Things that come and, in most cases, go. Life phases.

Pain is a partner that can’t really be shared. Who wants to hear about pain regularly? Especially if there is nothing to be done.

Which brings me to the Finnish parliamentary discussion of whether or not euthanasia should be allowed. Euthanasia is something that actually can be done about unbearable pain.

It is clear that most of those discussing the matter have no personal understanding of pain. I don’t mean the passing pain associated with an occasional injury or operation. I’m talking about everyday ongoing pain that undermines you totally.

There is a limit to the pain we can endure. I have never reached it, but thanks to my partner I have some inkling of it.

I can’t see why anyone would have the right to ask me to endure unbearable pain for months or more, if doctors of good standing have declared me fatally ill.

A young friend of mine died of a fatal form of cancer. He died at home, cared by his parents. They were not able to do the one thing he begged of them – to end the pain.

Much noise is made about fine lines and moral dilemmas. When in fact it’s simple. There is only one decision maker that matters. The person who is fatally ill.

At the moment the laws of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada and Colombia allow euthanasia i.e. death assisted by a doctor.

An alternative preferred by other countries, Germany and Switzerland included, is to allow doctors to prescribe their fatally ill patients the drugs they need in order to end their lives themselves as painlessly as possible.

Some use the term assisted suicide in the latter case, which is misleading. For all intents and purposes your life has already been taken when you are fatally ill. Death is a given. It  is just a matter of timing, of when the suffering ends.

In the US a few states allow assisted death, many don’t.

The foreign minister of Finland, Timo Soini, who is also the leader of the populist Finns party, has emerged as a strong opponent of euthanasia. In true populist fashion he paints a dramatic picture of Finland in the clutches of a culture of death with doctors as executioners. Then he goes on to wax lyrically about giving fatally ill patients all possible support and pain relief available.

Timo Soini is not stupid. He knows that there are situations where there is no adequate pain relief. Where the only true support is to allow someone to end the pain. But Mr. Soini is above that. He feels he has the right to choose. For all of us. Whether it hurts or not.

I believe strongly in human rights, including the right to control what happens to your own body and to make medical decisions for yourself.

I also believe in religious freedom. Assisted death is not for everyone. Many may choose to endure the unbearable pain because it is the right thing to do according to their religion. In other words, it is worth the sacrifice for them.

But their religion is not my religion.

Choice – that’s what we should be talking about, Timo Soini. What gives you the right to take away my choice? I am not your sacrifice to make.