At least 135 Americans died at airports in 2018, according to a database compiled by The Guardian. Of those, 114 die while attempting to board planes to dying, often at the urging of loved ones.
These official death records, which tend to be kept by the bodies’ relatives or funeral home directors, are not always the best indication of what is happening at the airport. They tend to record only when a person dies within 12 hours of boarding the plane. Many terminal patients, however, attempt to die long before that, often driven to such an extreme by psychiatric illness, drug addiction or severe physical disabilities that medical interventions are not always the most suitable option.
“With many terminal patients with a terminal illness or incurable disease, medical interventions are not necessary or even possible,” said Annette Kosciolek, a bioethicist and professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law. “Terminal patients at Heathrow who die without intervention are often missing a doctor’s treatment plan that would protect them, or someone from having to come to the airport to attempt an intervention.”
In-person interventions at airports, which can occur in states like Utah and Texas where assisted suicide is legal, can cause further harm by scattering hospital staff and disrupting the patient’s bodily functions, she said.
“When hospitalized patients die in an airport in a medically induced coma, they are still breathing,” she said. “Because of the lack of certain devices to monitor their respirations and heart rates, it’s essentially impossible to reanimate them if someone is there and they die from a drug overdose. The other indirect harm of medical interventions at airports comes through the visits that relatives make to the dead person when they arrive at the hospital, which likely cause the hospital to lose money.”
Such an outcome has been documented before: On the evening of October 5, a 68-year-old man died of cardiac arrest aboard a US Airways flight, forcing the pilot to divert to Philadelphia. When the plane landed, he was pronounced dead.
“It’s really odd to me that these things happen,” Dr. Evangeline Mennen, a UCSF-based psychiatrist specializing in hospice medicine told The Guardian. “Most people think, ‘Oh, well, it’s a hospital — it will be okay.’ But it’s very dangerous and it’s not okay.”
As The Guardian noted, American law, when it comes to terminal cases, is ambiguous on the issue of medical intervention — a fact that has contributed to the lack of uniform reporting across the country.
While the United States is somewhat unusual in not recognizing palliative care as the standard of care, there are health providers who will discuss the medical intervention route with terminal patients, Kosciolek said. However, such discussions often occur only if a loved one is present at the hospital to observe and mediate.
“In many cases, terminal patients are terminally ill with chronic diseases and end-stage illnesses, and, in a substantial percentage of these patients, there are no available palliative or hospice care, and the primary care team is not familiar with hospice or palliative care,” she said. “Palliative care can be a very sophisticated approach to helping patients who are near the end of life.”
Modern American air travel can be highly stressful and can cause organ damage and severe illness. The right to choose one’s own end is fundamental to all aspects of life. Anyone in this situation should be able to peacefully exit life.
“While it is certainly important for families to make an informed decision on how to care for their loved ones, every terminal patient needs to understand what options they have available to them. Any potential terminal patient who is faced with major complications, I would recommend obtaining as much information as possible from the hospital, their primary care physician, their family doctor, or another form of a one-on-one consultation with a specialist,” Mennen said.
“Unfortunately, most terminal patients do not have someone nearby them who can make this decision for them.”
Read the full story at The Guardian.
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