Wayne Cockfield, 47, is concerned about protecting his own life. The threat? Assisted suicide. Wayne is a veteran of the Vietnam War. During the war, Wayne stepped on a land mine and as a result, lost both of his legs and suffered many other serious internal injuries and much of the use of his right hand.
Wayne has become increasingly concerned about the health care people with disabilities receive in the United States, specifically the ever-expanding tendency toward rationing health care through managed care plans-which often is based on a patient's perceived quality of life. People with disabilities are often considered by other people to have a poor quality of life. Cockfield argues that this trend would drop the bottom out for people with disabilities if physician-assisted suicide were legalized.
Mr. Cockfield, an alternate director from South Carolina Citizens for Life, states that the supposed groundswell for physician-assisted suicide comes from non-disabled people,
"Assisted suicide is spoken about by people with no serious disabilities. Disabled people do not want to die."
Mr. Cockfield also believes that a person who is not disabled will not have the same viewpoint about disability after he or she acquires one. States Cockfield, "If you told me when I was fifteen that I would live with disabilities, I would have said that I would rather be dead. But happiness, value and self-worth have nothing to do with physical health."
Most people have fear of the unknown and biased perceptions about disability, says Cockfield. "They don't understand what it's like. People are sincere, they even think they are doing us a favor--but they are wrong. I'm starting to feel vulnerable to those who say 'they'd be better off."'
On November 28, 1969 Wayne Cockfield, then 20 years old, was wounded by a land mine while on river patrol in Quang Nam province. For months, it wasn't clear whether Wayne would live or die. When he finally stabilized, it took years of work for Wayne to return to a normal life. He had a total of 29 surgeries and spent more than two years in the hospital.
For Wayne, there was a period of adjustment, although he had already begun to prepare because he had been living in a war zone and knew the potential for death had been real.
The biggest issue for Wayne was fear and uncertainty about the future. He was fearful of how others would react to his disability. While he knew he was the same person, strangers had different perceptions of him. "Everyone with disabilities has bad experiences out in public," says Wayne. Fortunately for Wayne, he has had solid support from friends and family. None of them remotely thought that he would be better off dead.
Pain and Suffering
Wayne's story encompasses many issues, including pain. Wayne lost his legs to infection, not to the initial blast. He also suffered many other injuries which he described as "massive wounds" causing "massive pain, long-term pain, searing pain, day after day, week after week, month after month." But, he insists, "I never wanted to die."
Pain control wasn't nearly as sophisticated in 1969 as it is today. For instance, there were no morphine pumps. Wayne received no more than one shot of morphine every four hours, to prevent addiction.
Now, Wayne has to deal with phantom pain, a phenomenon which can cause excruciating pain perceived to be in the missing limb. In the 1990's however, Wayne says that 98 percent of his pain can be dealt with by taking a combination of medication to prevent it. For those other rare occasions a physician can prescribe something stronger.
Despite enduring such incredible suffering, Wayne believes that the fear of pain can be worse than enduring it. "Using misperceptions, fear and prejudice to make policy can be dangerous and deadly," he says. "People project their own fear of pain onto people with disabilities."
Gradual healing relieved much of Wayne's pain. Wayne thanks God that no one ever suggested death as an option. All of his care givers made him feel that his life wasn't over and that there were many things he would still be able to do. Wayne firmly believes people who desire death are depressed and don't want to live with pain. He believes that they want their pain to be addressed and their abilities to be acknowledged.
The Value of Life
One of the doctors who treated Wayne when he was in critical condition told him that he would not have given him a one percent chance of living and that he was so happy Wayne had beaten the odds. Wayne believes that the idea of extraordinary efforts--the very efforts that saved his life--are now considered by many to merely prolong suffering. Wayne considers this attitude tragic: extraordinary measures are good, the reason he's alive. "The is no doubt in my mind that today, I'd be allowed to die," he says. He now feels a real sense of vulnerability, because of the way other people act toward people with disabilities. They fear living the way Wayne views as normal.
"People like to live with the illusion that they are immortal, they don't like to think that anything can happen to them," he says. "But they can never understand how valuable life can be until they've lived a life like mine."
National Right To Life Committee
Suite 500, 419 7th Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20004-2293
(202) 626-880O (FAX) 737-9189 or 347-5907 http://www.nrlc.org
Contact: Michele Arocha Allen