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Eyewitness in Erewhon Academic Hospital
  1. Inez de Beaufort,
  2. Frans Meulenberg
  1. Erasmus MC/University Medical Center, Department of Medical Ethics and Philosophy of Medicine, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Inez de Beaufort, Erasmus MC/University Medical Center, Department of Medical Ethics and Philosophy of Medicine, PO Box 2040, NL - 3000 CA Rotterdam, The Netherlands; i.debeaufort{at}erasmusmc.nl

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Part 10: The very old man and the sea of tears

‘There is no time to waste, then, is there?' (From Lawrence Of Arabia)

‘He needs to be treated.’

‘But he is 79 years old.’

Two doctors in conflict. As happens often. The subject of the conversation is Mr Tyson, admitted to the hospital because of an aneurysm in his abdomen. Sarah Walters said ‘treat’. ‘Nonsense, too old, too risky’ is the opinion of Dr Jones. The squabble continues.

Sarah: ‘So what? Does old age exclude you from society? Of course we have to treat him.’

‘But the investment will only last for a few years, and think of the risks, he may die from the operation. He should go home and, well, live what there is to live.’

She shakes her head, her hair giving her a red aura. ‘I think he ought to have the operation.’

‘I think it would be best if he should accept that time is running out, that life is finite, the whole existential rigmarole, et cetera.’

‘Quite presumptuous of you to think he has not accepted that. Why? Just because he is old and did not kill himself?’ Sarah is indignant. ‘If he had done just that, we would have lamented about how we do not take care of our elderly, that society doesn't care, and that certainly there is no right to die unless your situation is totally hopeless and you're in a lot of pain. It doesn't make sense; in public health one does everything to increase life expectancy. Countries are proudly comparing themselves on the life expectancy list: mine is longer than yours. We worry because people have these unhealthy lifestyles, they are obese, they smoke, they get no exercise and they live a couch potato life. And then, lo and behold, they do grow old, in fact, and we go: …

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