Virtues in Caring for the Sick and Dying Patient

William E. May
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

For years I have been writing articles opposing euthanasia and assisted suicide, grave violations of the inviolable dignity of human bodily persons, whose bodies are integral to their being as human and not spirit persons.

Since January 17, I myself have been a "dying patient." I was suffering from pneumonia, extremely low blood pressure, septicemia, and other problems. My doctor told me that I almost died, but thank God our loving Father, in union with his only begotten Son and Holy Spirit, chose to give his child more years of earthly life.

This experience has led me to reflect on the place of virtue in both the work of health care givers and in the life of the "dying patient." I will first consider the former, and then, the latter.

Virtue(s) and work of health care givers

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, there are intellectual virtues, and there are practical virtues: intellectual virtues are understanding, knowledge or science, and wisdom; but none of these are moral virtues, or virtues that are practical. The relevant practical virtue in regards the doctor and patient relationship is prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude).

Health care workers need the virtues of the intellect as speculative if they are to have competence in caring for their patients. But healthcare workers, including doctors, nurses, nurses' aids, etc., need not be and perhaps are not morally good persons. It is safe to say that doctors who intentionally kill their patients as a way of delivering them from the cruel burden of mere bodily life, as distinct from personal life, are acting in a morally good way. Nor are they acting in a morally good way by choosing deliberately to withhold or withdraw nonburdensome kinds of medical treatment. In addition, nor are they morally good by choosing deliberately to withdraw or withhold ordinary nursing care, such as providing food and hydration to so-callled 'vegetative' persons who are not suffering a fatal pathology and who are able to assimilate the food and hydration provided - by which removal would cause them to die of starvation.

Virtue(s) and the "dying patient"

It is most important to note that we rightly speak here of the "dying patient." And remember, I am reflecting on my experience as such a patient. The reason is simply this. Patience is the virtue most required of the dying patient. Patience is integral to the cardinal virtue of fortitude or courage, and it is very difficult to be patient. I know that I find this very difficult and think that this may well be true of a lot of us.

We want to have control of our lives and fear to trust our lives to others. But this fear, although rational and not irrational, is not reasonable. It is not reasonable because we know that we can and do make a mess of our own lives, whereas there is another - the one and only three-personed God - who never will make a mess of our lives because of His love of us as His children, adopted sons and daughters of His, brothers and sisters of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, from whom no ceated thing can ever separate us (cf Romans 8.38). The relevant virtue here is prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues.

Let us trust in our care givers to obtain the intellectual virtues necessary for their profession while we hope and pray they find the practical moral virtues to care lovingly for life in all stages and conditions as we, the patients, learn to embrace patience, fortitude and charity.