Thomas McKelvey Cleaver : Why We Need Obama’s ‘Death Panels’

Death with dignity:
Why we need those ‘death panels’

…my father had gone into a coma that afternoon, and it was time for the family to fly to Denver and gather ’round for his final time on earth.

By Thomas McKelvey Cleaver / The Rag Blog / August 14, 2009

The Right claims that “Obamacare” will provide “death panels” that will decide who lives and who gets euthanized.

True to form, the most spineless political party on the planet — the Democratic Party of the United States — has decided they can’t stand up to outrage manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry, the health insurance industy, and their far right Republican allies who seek any issue they can find to oppose the Democrats. They know that health care reform, once passed, will mean that once the very people now screaming at Congresspeople experience the ehhanced quality of care, that they will have no political future. Thus, they have to strangle the baby in its crib.

Here’s the kind of scenario they’re fighting to defend:

In late March, 1988, I got a call from my mother that I had been expecting and dreading for a week. After getting sick while out to dinner a week earlier and being hospitalized for it, my father had gone into a coma that afternoon, and it was time for the family to fly to Denver and gather ’round for his final time on earth.

My father was dying of colon cancer, which he was pretty fairly certain was the result of his having walked around for six weeks in his work pants at the government lab he worked in 50 years earlier, with a piece of unranium as big as my fist in the front pocket.

Mom and Dad had been out to visit me in Los Angeles the summer before, and he’d told me he figured from what the doctors were saying that he had maybe a year left. He’d also talked to me about what he would want done if he was unable to tell people how he wanted to be cared for when the end came. I asked him to write that down somewhere, tell mom where it was, go visit a lawyer, do something to be sure more people than I knew this. He said he would.

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When I got to Denver the next day, the first thing I did was ask my mother if she knew where Dad’s letter was. He’d never written it.

Things were hard enough. “Dysfunctional” described my family going back at least two generations, before anyone knew what the word meant. For me, it was a case of “the wrong one’s dying.” My mother and I had never had a functional relationship, and I was pretty certain everything bad that could happen was about to cut loose. I wasn’t wrong.

My sister, the recently-converted Mormon, came hoping to convince dear old Father Dearest — who detested her religious choice — that it was time for him to join the community of Heavenly Father and let her copy down all the family names in a bible going back to the 18th Century, to offer them “life everlasting.” She and her husband had no interest in dealing with me, my brother or my mother. My brother was his mother’s son, and unlikely to ever oppose any decision she would make.

Things simmered thus for four days, with Sister Dearest demanding a schedule with a two-hour block of time in the afternoon when she would know she and her husband could visit the hospital without having to deal with the rest of the family.

My brother and I got the late evening “watch” that day; I was alone with my father while my brother went to get coffee. Wouldn’t you know it. that was when he chose to “come to” for a few minutes. He couldn’t talk, but I was able to determine he did know what was going on, and where he was, and who I was. I needed to know if he had changed his mind. I told him I would ask some questions with yes and no answers, that one squeeze of his hand would be “no” and two would be “yes”; I wanted to be as certain of any yes answers as I could be.

Yes, he knew he was dying. No, he hadn’t changed his mind. Yes, he wanted no more heroic measures. Yes, he wanted to be taken off medicines. Yes, he wanted to leave this world now.

And then, just as my brother walked back into the room with the two cups of coffee, Dad went back into his coma.

I told my brother what had happened. Amazingly, he believed me, and said he had hoped this would be the case. He also said he knew Mormons never allowed such a decision by the dying to stop the attempt to “save” them, which would mean my sister would have a religious reason to do what she would have done anyway, which was to oppose anything I said.

Convincing Mom was going to be the only way. When we got back home that night, she was still up. I was the one chosen to make the presentation. She didn’t like it at first and asked my brother what he thought. His good intentions went out the door.

It took several hours and everything I had in me not to scream back at her when she screamed at me how I had always hated my family, but in the end her love for her husband of 45 years and her own desire not to end up in a coma unable to communicate led her to agree.

World War III came when my sister was informed of the decision. Unfortunately, it came after we had told the hospital to remove everything but the saline drip, with a nurse whose religious convictions wouldn’t allow for such actions telling my sister we had decided to “kill” her father.

Fortunately, Mom stayed strong during the final two days of my father’s time on earth, and he was able to die in peace, or at least as much peace as someone in my family will ever get.

To this day, 20 years later, my sister would tell you — if you asked — that I killed my father because an atheist like me had never loved my family.

Had Dad written that letter, even better had he given it to the family lawyer, none of the drama described above would have happened. I wish I had kept on him about taking care of it, but who wants to be the one to be constantly telling someone you love that they’re going to die and have to do something about it — particularly when you don’t want to think of them going any more than they do?

And that is why it is so necessary that people be provided the option of deciding for themselves, while they are in control of their lives, how they will be allowed to leave. There is too much drama in the best family for anyone other than that person to make such a decision without suffering some sort of adverse consequences.

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8 Responses to Thomas McKelvey Cleaver : Why We Need Obama’s ‘Death Panels’

  1. k says:

    Thanks for writing this account. People with cash have already taken care of this. People without don’t matter to the classists.

  2. dospesentas says:

    “People with cash” and exactly who do you expect to pay the taxes to fund ‘free’ healthcare? People without cash?

    I wonder how many have actually read HR 3200? ( ) How many are aware of the ambiguity on this issue? The legislation leaves the door wide open to interpretation. Who is in line to do this interpreting? Obama supporter, mentor and friend Cass Sunstein. I strongly recommend reading Mr. Sunstein’s paper; Lives, Life-Years, and Willingness to Pay to gain insight on how policy will be interpreted and implemented by the Obama administration. ( ) Pay particular attention to how he advocates changing the metrics relative to age with regard to Cost Benefit Analysis.

    Partisan nonsense like this only serves to mislead and distract from the facts. I’m particularly incensed by the writers propagandist statement: “health care reform, once passed, will mean that once the very people now screaming at Congresspeople experience the ehhanced quality of care” I challenge Mr. Cleaver to demonstrate a single shred of proof to back up this claim – he can’t. It’s false conjecture based on his opinion, absent of fact. This is counter productive to real understanding. Here’s my opinion: Cramming millions of uninsured into our existing heathcare network, many with pre-existing conditions, will degrade rather than improve it. Like the laws of physics, it’s hard to overcome the realities of SUPPLY vs. DEMAND.

    Read and learn the facts, don’t buy into partisan propaganda.

  3. Pollyanna says:

    Dospesentas, I have not heard of any proposal for FREE health care! Wow, where do I sign up for that?

    As I understand it, the Democratic proposals that haven’t yet been totally gutted will provide for a publicly-administered health care plan, for which people will have to pay premiums, deductibles, and co-pays exactly as they do now, but perhaps not so much in insurance executive salaries and perks. This health care plan would compete with private insurers, and everyone would be free to pick the plan that best meets their needs.

    This seems to me a very tiny improvement over the present situation; nowhere near the sweeping reform for which I had hoped (a single payer system, or “socialized medicine”). I don’t really see that the current proposals will help much, but if they help even a few working families be able to afford health insurance, that will be a benefit.

    As for providing actual HEALTH CARE to Americans, well, we are pretty far up the creek and no paddle in sight. Every country in the world has better care; a growing number have more health care professionals per capita.

    You make an excellent point regarding supply vs demand, and one that affects a great many areas of health care. For example, only about a dozen people worldwide seem to be concerned yet about strategic supplies of pharmaceutical drug-making necessities, or sustainable, renewable use of plant drug resources. Population growth worldwide will make these issues crucially important, probably too late.

  4. dospesentas says:

    Pollyanna is correct, ‘Free’ isn’t totally accurate. It won’t be free for everyone, only for a little over a third, the rest will pay the bill (or more accurately, borrow to pay the bill).

    Sorry, your claim: “Every country in the world has better care” is untrue. Few countries can begin to compare with the U.S.. Look at our research, medical schools and widespread medical technology. The quality of our medical professionals is second to none. I’ll give you Oxford, can you name three other major world class medical schools outside the U.S.? Two? One? Don’t forget, HALF the U.S. medical care system you denounce, is already government run (Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP/VA/Tricare).

    Honestly ask yourself; If I had a serious life threating health crisis, I’d rather be treated in ‘your answer here’ than in the USA.

    We could use healthcare reform measures that make our system more accessable at a realistic cost. We don’t need more entitlements spending borrowed money. This issue is too important to not get all the facts, debate them, understand what is being done and get it right.

  5. This person’s story was very similar to what my father went through.

    My dad was a very intelligent and thorough person about EVERYTHING – most of all, DOCUMENTATION.

    When he learned of his colon cancer in 1991, he immediately got busy with writing not only his end of life instructions, but his own obiturary.

    He made calls to all of us kids; he told us we’d all get notarized copies, and he was as ‘matter of fact’ about this, as anyone I know.

    I followed my dad’s lead; dad died on May 25, 1993 – he died at home; he controlled his interaction with doctors and ‘treatments’ – refusing what he didn’t believe would do anything to better serve his death.

    I worked for a man called G. J. Riley; he was the VP of a large company – we had Prudential Insurance as our employer medical coverage, and I was his assistant.

    In January of 1977, he learned he had lung and brain cancer – given 6months to live.

    He asked me to make travel arrangements for those ‘vacations’ he wanted to take; refusing ALL treatment until he RETURNED, so he knew he could spend a few weeks just as he wanted to.

    He flew back from Monterey, CA to Cincinnati, Ohio – he was failing fast, and told me to get him 75 insurance forms for him to sign.

    I clearly remember him saying: “Those god-damned bastard will try to avoid paying those medical bills if I don’t have signed forms to go with my bills, and my wife knows so little about how the insurance ‘vultures’ operate, she’ll get caught shy”.

    So, we got those 75 forms signed; I requested additiona forms, and George asked me to learn to sign his signature (as I’d done on many letters I’d written during his absense), so he could ‘fool the MF’s, if we ran out of forms’.

    (whoops, the character limitation forbids my post)……..

  6. So, in order to ‘beat the restriction and system of posting’, I’ve continued here – GJR would be proud o’me..

    Frankly, I thought GJR was being a bit too paranoid, but knowing he’d spent 20 years in Army Intelligence; worked with both the FBI, and CIA, that he probably had ‘inside experience’, that caused him to get everything prepared for any short-changing that might be attempted by our insurance carrier.

    Then GJR set about dictating a living will at a time when few were even suggested. We re-did his LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT – we made copies; we spent time meeting with his attorney, and he wore himself to the point of collapsing, trying to make sure he ‘beat out those lying and cheating f**kers’ (as he called them).

    He sent memos to the president; he went through his files, and removed paper-work that he felt might indicate that he was not of ‘sound mind’. I’ve never seen anyone move so fast with a razor-blade, as he took some documents, and removed certain text, that he didn’t want to live after him.

    Again, I was his assistant and his friend, so I followed his every directive.

    I was the last person to see him alive; on June 9, 1977, he called me from the hospital and told me to bring up his pay-check; a fifth of Irish whiskey, and his tape-recorder.

    This man’s determination to have his final wishes carried out; to ‘die his way’, and to minimize the difficulties for his wife and family, astounded me and inspired me.

    He signed his check; gave it to me to give to his wife (Elsie), and we finalized everything on the tape recorder as I used a straw to siphon Irish whiskey from a glass, and let it drip into his throat.

    While I was there, I got ‘caught’ by the doctor – amazingly, he questioned George about what was going on. In a voice that could barely be heard, GJR said, “She’s my best friend; she’s handling all my arrangements, and mum’s the word – do you understand”……….

    We both watched him slump back on the pillow; he appeared to have died right then, and the doctor told me that he’d keep this incident confidential between GJR; him, and me.

    GJR died 48 hours; he’d slipped into a coma, and never came to, but I shall always remember his courage; the look in his eye as he tasted his favorite whiskey, and I learned how to ‘die’ from this man.

    ….and to his credit:

    The insurance company was completely baffled by the signed forms that accompanied each and every bill that was sent after his death; thankfully, we still had 6 in reserve, when all was said and done, and this shows me what we all should consider as we age – how we should protect our families; how we should take away the burden of decision.

    Oh yesn and GJR was 51 when he contracted cancer; celebrated his birthday in March, and even dressed up in his green attire for St. Patrick’s Day – this was an Irishman who said: “There are 2 kinds of people those who are Irish, and those who wish they were Irish”.

    Irish, or not, this was one man who was geared to understand the ‘system’; quite aware of the ‘system’, and truly was ahead of the ‘system’ at every turn.

  7. David says:

    As one who was privy to this whole ordeal only as a 9 year old, I’m very interested in the history of what happened here. I for one believe in advance directives after having watched the ordeal Mr. Cleaver speaks of with my very own 9-year-old eyes. Mr. Cleaver, please contact me when you get a chance.

  8. David says:

    I should probably mention my email address is

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