It was a banner year in 1998 for the moral and ethical evolution of the College. That year saw the release of its Statement of Principles of End-of-Life Care, a seminal document for the emerging framework of surgical palliative care and the first light of the work of my colleague, Peter Angelos, MD, FACS, which did much to make made ethics a less arcane element of surgical practice. These developments followed the 1997 Clinical Congress during which the College joined the then-active national debate about physician-assisted suicide.
The national debate eventually culminated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s two 1997 rulings that physician-assisted suicide is not a protected liberty interest under the Constitution. These rulings in Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg deferred to the states the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.
Kill the suffering, not the patient
It was ironic that the College’s attention to surgical palliative care started, literally, with a dead end. The 1997 symposium’s focus on physician-assisted suicide revealed how little there was in the surgeon’s toolbox to assist seriously ill patients and their families. At this well-attended event with a distinguished panel of surgeons and ethicists moderated by the late Thomas Krizek, MD, FACS, I heard fear of death, fear of suffering, and fear of our helplessness as practitioners in the face of our patients’ deaths. The debate was about control, not the effective response to the many species of suffering encountered in surgical practice.
Hospice care and the nascent concept of palliative care were acknowledged by both sides of the debate as beneficial but as distinctly apart from surgery. The need for improved palliative care was the one unifying idea that emerged from that day’s discussion. All sides seemed to agree that striving to mitigate suffering during the course of any serious illness would be preferable to allowing it to continue unabated until silencing it with deliberate death as a last resort. The ensuing challenge for surgeons would be the reconciliation of cure and palliation, each so much a part of surgical history, especially in the past 200 years. This would prove to be a tall order as surgeons had done such a tidy job separating these two priorities without even realizing it since the second World War. Nothing less than the soul of surgery (and medicine) would be at stake from the relentless technocratic “progress” that threatened to swallow health care and so many other aspects of our culture – a culture that perhaps has been too intoxicated by the individual “pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness” while overlooking the suffering of one’s neighbor.
Recent evidence of burnout raises the possibility that we surgeons have internalized this conflict. Because of our sacred fellowship in healing, are we now, as we were 20 years ago, in the midst of a new spiritual crisis? As the operative repertoire and our professional status become increasingly transient we will be compelled to ground our identities in something more fulfilling and enduring.