AUTHOR’S NOTE: The giant panda Hsing-Hsing and his mate Ling-Ling arrived at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 1972—a gift from the Chinese government. Immediately they became the zoo’s most popular attraction and the most loved and most photographed pandas in the world. Ling-Ling died in 1992 of heart failure. When Hsing-Hsing died at age 28 in 1999, an outpouring of public grief and mourning gripped the nation’s capital.
My brother, Floyd, lay in a coma for 6 years before his heart quit pumping on October 28, 1999. This was about the same time that Hsing-Hsing, the National Zoo’s remaining panda, began a steep decline from a fatal kidney disease diagnosed in May.
Like Hsing-Hsing, Floyd was cared for at home, with expert care—and loving attendants. Not a single bedsore. Spoon-fed only the most nutritious, pureed foods. No trace of urine or feces on his waxy skin. Each day since the massive stroke that abruptly shattered an active and productive life, a caretaker read to him from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—book reviews and sports, Floyd’s favorites. Of course, he never heard a word. Never responded. Just lay there motionless. Except when he was rolled over every 2 hours—which is why he had no bedsores.
"When I started with Floyd six years ago," the caretaker told me on my arrival for the funeral, "I never thought I could get so attached to nobody who couldn’t talk back. But I did. I really did, and I talked to him all the time. I’d say, ‘Floyd, it’s time to clean you up now, so help me roll you over,’ or I’d tell him, ‘Swallow,’ when I’d bring the spoon up to his mouth."
"You think he understood?" I asked.
"I ain’t sure. But you know, there’s a funny thing. Every night, long about 2 in the morning, he’d start screaming. Real loud screams. Scared me the first time I heard it. And he wouldn’t stop ‘til I’d hug him. I’d hold him like he was a baby, and in a little bit, he’d quiet down. Then the next night, same thing all over again.
"I worried about him when I weren’t on duty. I got to know a lot about Floyd from people. The neighbor next door said he was a World War II hero, a flyer on a B-26. And Floyd had a heck of a sense of humor. The neighbor told me how one time about 3 in the morning he was in his garage running his band saw. And your brother’s bedroom was next to the guy’s garage. Well, Floyd opens his window and yells, ‘Hey, John, knock it off. How do you expect me to count my money with all that racket?’
"Your brother was something else. A real fighter, I can tell you that. Almost every time when I was feeding him, I’d say, ‘Floyd, why do you keep on swallowing? You’d last no time at all if only you’d stop swallowing.’ You see, he weighed maybe 75 pounds at the end."
Through my sadness and foggy emptiness, I thought about the "real fighter" comment. As a physician, I had many times heard the "fighter" phrase spoken in consolation by doctors or caregivers to surviving relatives about the long but losing battle of a loved one.
But I know my brother. And I know he "swallowed" not to prolong his vegetative limbo, but merely from a gag-like reflex that he had no control over. Floyd would never have voluntarily put his family through the anguish and sorrow of seeing him this way. Nor would he have prolonged the hellish indignity he himself suffered.
Which brings me back to Hsing-Hsing who, like Floyd, suffered mightily, but unlike Floyd, briefly. Until shortly before his death, Hsing-Hsing had been fairly healthy for an old bear. He had recovered from surgery for testicular cancer in 1997, but several months before his death he was found to have a fatal kidney disease. His condition worsened, and zoo officials became concerned about the panda’s quality of life. They noticed that ordinary life activities had become difficult for him.
With Hsing-Hsing’s rapidly worsening kidney failure, complicated by arthritis, poor vision, nosebleeds, anemia, weight loss, and loss of appetite, the officials and caregivers at the National Zoo decided he had suffered enough. He was given a lethal intravenous injection.
My brother’s suffering was light years greater and also years longer than that of the celebrity bear. Condoning euthanasia in human beings is a slippery slope that may lead to heinous abuses. Yet, as a loving brother who mourned Floyd’s 6 years of indignity, I could not help but wish that someone might have had the authority to show the same compassion for him that Hsing-Hsing received.
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