Everything in our power?

After dragging on for months, the incredibly sad story of little Charlie Gard finally reached its inevitable conclusion two weeks ago. One can only feel desperately sorry for both him and his parents.

What loving parent would not do everything in their power to save their child? One thinks of David’s reaction to the illness of his baby son: he could only fast and pray (II Samuel 12:16-18), but we have so much more power in our own hands… Technology has given us ventilators and intensive care units, enabling us to keep alive profoundly sick individuals who in previous generations would have quickly died. Rapid advances in scientific knowledge mean that new treatments are being continually invented, and the Internet enables anyone – not just health professionals – to find out the very latest developments. If the treatment or procedure that you need is not available at home, you can easily fly halfway round the world to another country where it is. Not rich enough? Turn to social media, and crowdfunding (over £1 million was raised to take Charlie to America).

With all these avenues open for exploration, how could Charlie’s parents not have taken them? When the offer of a highly experimental treatment in America (so experimental that it hasn’t even been tested in animals yet) was repeatedly dangled in front of them, how could they have refused to pursue it? They would have felt guilty for “not doing everything in their power” to save their son. And the more prolonged and public their battle with the medical ‘establishment’ became, the harder it must have been for them to admit defeat.

And yet… the point comes when somebody has to pluck up the courage to say the hard word, “Enough.” Not only is there no prospect of meaningful benefit for the patient from all this effort (because he has irreversible brain damage), but it’s actually prolonging his agony and causing him unnecessary suffering. Most parents in that kind of situation will, after a brief emotional struggle, accept the opinion of the medical experts. But if parents and doctors can’t agree, the final decision has to be made by the courts. Sadly, the legal process magnifies the adversarial aspects of the situation. As happens with many divorces, what probably started out as a relatively amicable disagreement became increasingly polarised, tainted by suspicion, and bitter. The intense public interest raised the stakes even higher, until emotions ran high: both sides in the Charlie Gard case received verbal abuse from outsiders, and even death threats.

None of this can have helped Charlie’s parents to come to terms with the inevitability of their son’s death. Losing a young child is so very painful for any parent; how much worse it must be if you are convinced that there was something more that could have been done for them! A very natural anger is added to their grief; we need to pray for their emotional healing.

Spare a thought also for the 10,000 or so children under the age of five who died on the same day as Charlie – not from an incurable disease but from starvation, or from illnesses that are easily preventable or cheap to treat (principally malaria, measles and diarrhoea). We do not know any of their names. They have no Facebook pages dedicated to them, no online petitions and no front-page headlines – so we do not see them. Their parents also mourn – but we do not hear them. They too did everything in their power to save their children – children who, unlike Charlie, could have been saved – but the resources that we take for granted were simply not available to them.

£1 million would buy an awful lot of measles vaccines and mosquito nets. It’s in our power…

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