DENVER — Their work is bringing God’s mercy to those needing end-of-life care. They call themselves the “antidote” to physician-assisted suicide.
Divine Mercy Supportive Care is a nonprofit offering hospice — end-of-life care — and palliative — medical treatment and comfort care — services in line with Catholic standards of care set by the U.S. bishops. They enable people to die a natural death with dignity, comfort and spiritual care.
Established June 2013 in Denver, the apostolate is battling the growing drive to aid people in hastening death, which is advocated by organizations such as Denver-based Compassion and Choices, which supported 29-year-old Brittany Maynard’s highly publicized 2014 physician-assisted suicide to evade the final stages of brain cancer.
“We work every single day to find solutions to those issues that might make a person want to give up,” said Kevin Lundy, president and CEO of Divine Mercy. “We offer more resources and more support than anybody out there. That’s why we’re the antidote to physician-assisted suicide.”
Divine Mercy offers in-home care from morally focused staffers carried out in accord with the U.S. bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.” Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila is an ex-officio board member. The medical director and spiritual adviser is Deacon Alan Rastrelli, a medical doctor and founding member of the palliative care team for Kaiser Permanente at Exempla St. Joseph Hospital.
Lundy has 28 years experience in health care, including hospice, long-term care and technology. Staffers are fully licensed; chaplains are priests, deacons and accredited laypeople. Spiritual care includes sacraments; support services include bereavement counseling and social workers.
Sanctioned last year by Community Health Accreditation Partner, which affirms Divine Mercy meets the health care industry’s highest nationally recognized standards, it is also a certified Medicare provider.
“We have a world-class team,” Lundy said, adding that being a nonprofit allows the agency to be mission-focused rather than profit-focused.
“We’re not here to make money,” he said. “We’re here to make sure a person’s journey (to eternal life) is sacred and wonderful.”
Building a Culture of Life
Divine Mercy also endeavors to build a culture of life by educating the public on ethical end-of-life care through consultations, training and talks. It helped defeat two physician-assisted suicide bills in Colorado the past two years and is fighting the movement’s latest effort in the state: Proposition 106, a ballot issue that would allow people with a terminal illness and a prognosis of six months or less to live to get a prescription to kill themselves. Five states currently permit physician-assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico.
The Catholic Church forbids suicide as going against God’s commandment to not kill.
In their statement on physician-assisted suicide, the U.S. bishops promote hospice and palliative care as solutions that affirm a person’s human dignity and value and offer true compassion by meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs at the end of life, rather than abandoning them to suicide.
“We alleviate physical pain and address spiritual and psychological fears,” confirmed Lundy. “There’s a team of people to offset any kind of suffering a patient might have.”
Gift of Time
Those opposed to physician-assisted suicide include medical professionals, who see it as going against their mission to heal, and disability-rights advocates, who see it as a threat to dignity and the right to life.
The biggest danger of physician-assisted suicide?
“They can kill you, and they can kill you off schedule,” Lundy said.
A 2016 Johns Hopkins University study found that medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Opponents of physician-assisted suicide note that people often outlive their prognosis, and they warn that a misdiagnosis could cause someone to end his life prematurely.
“We have a real focus on protecting life to its natural end,” Lundy said. “Hospice gives the gift of time to people to reconcile and say their goodbyes.”
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that people who received hospice services lived on average 29 days longer than those who did not. Subsequent studies have affirmed that hospice and palliative-care patients live longer than those who do not receive such care.
Patients, family and friends say that the gift of time is precious, permitting treasured last experiences and peace of mind that their loved ones lived life to its natural end. Those who have faith say it’s vital for one’s salvation.
“I wouldn’t give up those last moments with my mom for anything in the world,” college student Miranda Smith of Centennial, Colorado, said in a video about her mother’s end-of-life care.
Smith’s mother, Jane, 50, was quietly battling the same cancer Maynard was suffering with at the same time. Unlike Maynard, who moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of the latter’s physician-assisted suicide law, the Smith family chose hospice care through Divine Mercy so Jane could live every second of life God granted her.
“In that last month of her life, Divine Mercy not only supported my mother, but also our family,” Smith wrote in a blog post. “We all had the comfort of knowing that we were doing all that we could to make her time on earth as peaceful and joyful as possible.”
Momentous Last Moments
Sister Mary Mother of Jesus Doran, prioress of the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Littleton, Colorado, said Divine Mercy provided hospice care to two of their nuns.
“Those last moments are the most important of our lives,” Sister Mary said. “Divine Mercy understands that.”
“Even when a person is unconscious, the soul is unfettered,” she said. “They’re not bound by a sick body or a suffering mind. … God is still working with that soul.”
The Church teaches that suffering can be redemptive, Sister Mary said, adding that it is permitted to lessen one’s suffering so that he or she may carry that cross. To turn away from the cross, however, is to turn away from one’s salvation. Ending a life to avoid suffering, the nun said, is murder and puts a soul in peril.
“That’s taking away a person’s last moments of expiation,” she said, adding that St. Faustina, the “Apostle of Divine Mercy,” expressed the profound significance of one’s last moments in her diary.
“God’s mercy sometimes touches the sinner at the last moment in a wondrous and mysterious way,” the saint wrote. “Outwardly, it seems as if everything were lost, but it is not so.
“The soul, illumined by a ray of God’s powerful final grace, turns to God in the last moment with such a power of love that, in an instant, it receives from God forgiveness of sin and punishment, while outwardly it shows no sign either of repentance or of contrition, because souls (at that stage) no longer react to external things.”
Death can be a beautiful journey, Rastrelli affirmed.
“You can take the sting away,” he recounted in a video on Divine Mercy’s end-of-life care. “You make [it] beautiful by ushering that person into … new life. That’s beautiful.”
Roxanne King writes from Denver, Colorado.
Portions of this story appeared previously in the Denver Catholic.
FOR MORE INFORMATION