When Life is Intolerable

As a teenager, I was fascinated by political campaigns. The most fun to watch on TV were the figures of the extreme right or left, who were always fighting. One of these was a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Lucio Magri. Magri founded the most popular Italian communist newspaper, Il Manifesto, and never gave up the communist label even when in 1991 the historic Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian communist party) dropped its name for more social-democratic harbors.

Lucio Magri’s name dropped off my radar until a couple of months ago when national and international newspapers reported that, at seventy-nine, this gentleman went to Switzerland to commit – or to be assisted in committing – suicide.

Over decades, his ideals never seemed to flag, though Italian society had strongly rejected Communism. But idealism was not enough when he faced the most human cause of suffering. Three years ago his beloved wife died of cancer. He could not tolerate this loss, and while still active and surrounded by friends and family, his life entered a dead end.

He asked for and obtained a doctor’s permission to stop his pain by being put to sleep – forever. The reaction of friends and former opponents was regretful and sympathetic, and respectful of his record and bright intelligence, for which he was especially known.

But Magri’s story is far from being an isolated case and the clinic near Zurich where he went is doing a brisk business. Moreover, on January 5, a U.K. Commission reported to Parliament that assisted suicide should be legal for terminal patients with less than a year to live.

In my medical practice, I’m sometimes the one to whom cancer patients or their families, who have exhausted the therapeutic options, ask for a last possible cure that does not yet exist. I feel great frustration but offer my time and compassion, and volunteer to be with them and help them live through the remaining time.

They care about having someone with them. This time is, for patient and family or close friends, a supreme experience of love.

Lucio Magri wrote in his last letter that life was no longer tolerable. Suffering becomes the mirror from which our naked humanity cannot hide. In that mirror, the mystery of a whole life is seen and suddenly reveals the urgency of some greater meaning, of an answer that has to be reasonable and at the same time cannot leave anything or anyone out.

When this meaning is not found, someone who refuses the superficiality of our society may indeed come to think life intolerable. From experience, I know that it is not for me or anyone else to judge patients who succumb to disease or families left with painful scars due to the loss of a loved one. God will know all, including second thoughts and requests hidden from us, to weigh what is returned to Him, even in the desperate act of one who voluntarily enters a hospital with a one-way ticket.

Magri’s end.

I find it deeply wrong, however, for a physician who has committed his life to help improve or prolong the lives of patients to turn to an extreme pain-killer such as assisted suicide. To some it might seem an act of help, or even love, for a doctor unable to treat breath-taking pain with any medical procedure. But it is not.

To me, the problem is the same for both Lucio Magri, who ran out of reasons to go on, and for his doctor, who ran out of reasons to oppose to his patient’s will – and even helped him to die. I imagine Magri living his last period of life going to the Chamber of Deputies, writing his last book on the history of communism (The Tailor of Ulm), entertaining his friends and young granddaughter in his apartment in the heart of Rome, but always with a living memory of his wife and what she meant for him.

That memory definitely prevailed over his long-time ideals and hopes for social justice. His wife had truly become a significant other: so significant as to make him decide to forfeit his life, so other that he was lost in remembrance.

Is the hardest physical or psychological pain, when it is resistant to medical intervention, ultimately a good reason for a physician to help someone commit suicide? Isn’t that life already “finished”? Don’t I know that nothing else can be done?

This is where assisted suicide and euthanasia (from Greek: eu-thanos, good death) are seen as merciful human acts. But would terminating someone’s life of misery make me feel better? Absolutely not. In my experience, the mystery of suffering (“Doctor, why me?”) relates to something beyond my medical authority.

It is a living memory that calls forth our acts, regardless of intellectual theories or politically correct public statements. It was a living memory of a real person that led Lucio Magri to his decision. It is a living memory that guides me when I face unfixable or intolerable medical circumstances.

Christ is a living memory, based on stories, challenges, and people that directly changed and keep changing our lives. Euthanasia or assisted suicide cut the thread of living memory when happiness seems to have disappeared due to illnesses, intolerable events, multiple hopeless failures, or any other disastrous scenario that you may imagine.

But that thread was known to Christ. And He took it, lived it fully, and transformed it. He then returned it to us, not with less pain, but with an extension of meaning and hope, here and now.

Lucio Magri planned everything for his last trip. He was buried close to his wife in a small cemetery in Central Italy. He chose Mozart’s Requiem for a very private ceremony. I am not sure why but I like to think that he was still listening to a few lines of the Recordare: “Seeking me thou didst sit down weary, thou didst redeem me, suffering death on the cross. Let not such toil be in vain.”

Damiano Rondelli, MD is professor of medicine and director of the Stem Cell Transplant Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the editor of Storia delle discipline mediche, a history of the medical profession.




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