Advent Reflections

As the celebration of Christ's birth swiftly approaches, we are in a mood to celebrate family, friends and the tremendous joy we receive in simply loving those who are close to us. Among those family members, for many of us, are aging grandparents or perhaps a sibling who is quite ill or disabled in some way. Each, regardless of age, health or condition of dependency is precious and we take it for granted that others will feel the same.

So what I am about to tell you should give you pause.

Several weeks ago Hope Hospice of Southwest Florida filed an application for a license to offer funeral and cremation services on site. In other words, the Hope Hospice would become a type of one-stop service. Patients who checked in would never leave again until the church or cemetery service, or at least that is how we imagined the scenario playing out.

As it turns out, there are some people in Florida who object to this unseemly proposal, and after due consideration the vice president of Florida Hospices and Palliative Care, Inc. made it clear that funeral services really fall outside of the mission of hospice care. Apparently I was not the only one registering a negative reaction to the original proposal put forth by Hope Hospice.

This does not mean that Hope Hospice has abandoned its proposal, and it would seem most likely that we will hear more on this very subject in the future. Regardless of how things turn out in Florida, we should consider the very idea behind this proposal as a sign of the times.

During the same week that the Hope Hospice proposal was receiving some negative feedback, Liz Szabo of USA Today reported on the declining degree of protection hospitals and nursing homes are providing to those entrusted to their care. A research study has revealed that in the case of 2,100 suspicious deaths occurring in a hospital or nursing home setting, serial killers were involved in a great many of those deaths.

Kenneth Kizer, the man who spearheaded the study, told the media it is easy to see how serial killers continue to find work, since hospitals rarely share their suspicions when staffers seek employment elsewhere. This bit of news compels me to wonder whose best interest hospital or nursing home management really has at heart; the patient or the ongoing credibility of the institution itself. Shielding a hospital from potential bad press for lack of judgment in hiring a particular person is not as urgent a matter as protecting the vulnerable from potentially violent employees.

Clearly the culture of death is beginning to take its toll in more ways than one. This sort of news is disconcerting but I fear it is a mere harbinger of things to come in the not too distant future.

Right here in my own backyard a valiant pro-life leader, Judith Schiminsky, fought for her life. Those who were making health care decisions for her didn't seem to realize that she had a right to life even though she was in extreme pain, suffering from multiple cancerous tumors. Judith Schiminsky was best known to many Virginia pro-lifers as the founder of Chalet Magnificat, a home for unwed mothers. Prior to that Judith spent years in the medical profession as a highly-qualified nurse, a woman of integrity and fearless dedication to Catholic truth.

As one of her friends wrote recently, the nurses who were caring for Judith actually accused her pro-life friends of harassing them because her friends did all they could to get Judith the treatment she needed. It got so contentious that the nurses would no longer permit friends to visit Judith. It does seem macabre that asking for simple comfort care for a loved one would result in banishment from the bedside.

It grieves me to know that Judith suffered such inhumane treatment at the hands of her fellow medical professionals but it does not surprise me that such things are happening, even to those we love and admire.

American society has grown increasingly incapable of dealing with the prospect of suffering, whether it is personal agony or witnessing the pain of another. America seems to have arrived at a juncture in history where death is much more appealing than living with or through discomfort, be it personal or familial. America was once described in the beautiful words etched on the Statue of Liberty as a nation which welcomed the tired, the poor and the "wretched refuse" of humanity. Those words no longer have meaning in these days of self-centered ideas which twist the concept of compassionate care into an invitation to death at the hands of another.

Yes, it is the Christmas season, a time of joy and celebration. But it is also a time of self-examination and reflection because Advent always precedes the actual merriment that is a Christmas day filled with love. And so it is that each of us must look with renewed hope at the critically uncertain times in which we live. When it is becoming commonplace for nursing homes and hospitals to be places where freeing up bed space is more important than sharing the final days of a patient's life with him in an atmosphere of charity and compassion, there is an evermore urgent reason for each of us to be vigilant. Those we love and cherish may well become statistics in a future study dealing with premature death if we are not careful.

These are times in which those of us who love the gift of life should be rededicating ourselves to our fellow human beings, realizing that in each of them there is a glimmer of God's love for the world, regardless of the condition in which he or she may be.

What a great Christmas gift each of us could give to ourselves if we could look ourselves in the eye on Christmas morning, as we preen for the day's events, and realize that we do understand that our nation has gone mad with the idea of killing and that we are dedicated to changing that reality by our own commitment to loving the unlovable, affirming the downcast and welcoming the stranger, even when it is not convenient.

Like the shepherds on the hillside who could only give their adoration to the King of Kings on that first Christmas morning, so each of us can give of ourselves; that is the gift that is most needed in our world today. Let us not permit any of the countless victims of the culture of death to be forgotten or dismissed, even on Christmas Day.

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