Gifted teachers are effective translators. They decode abstract concepts with familiar words and descriptive images.
R. T. Lawrence, by way of a contemporary allegory, has effectively translated the ethical concerns incumbent to the end of life in his novel The Dignified Death of Joseph Sherman.
From the opening page of the manuscript, Lawrence allows the words of Margaret Mead to define the issue that begs for discussion.
“Society always is attempting to make the physician a killer---to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of the cancer patient…it is the duty of society to protect the physician from such requests.” (page xi)
Skillfully, Lawrence leads us through the sally port of a maximum security prison, and then bolts the door behind us for twenty-four hours. In the course of that one day, his readers confront a cascade of conflicting choices triggered by Joseph Sherman, who, in spite of his incarceration, exercises his legal right for physician assisted termination of his life.
With metered dialogue, Lawrence permits his characters to introduce themselves: the insensitive Dr. Brant; Nurse Avalyn Robbins, conflicted by uncertainty; Franz Vatel, the pragmatic security officer; Boxer, Blaine and the resourceful inmates of Echo mod; Joseph Sherman, imprisoned by the consequence of his choices. Each one views the end of life from a different perspective, and that collection of bias allows Lawrence to present a balanced consideration of duty and responsibility sealed within the physician-patient relationship.
Initially, the reader is permitted to stand back as an observer, but as the characters become fully dimensional, Lawrence draws us into the debate, challenging us to measure our personal responses to the questions raised. Who wields control as we approach the end of life? How does the decision of one caregiver impact the responsibility of another? When do civil mandates cross ethical boundaries?
Tactfully, Dr. Lawrence walks us through the penal community without distracting us with a stereotypical portrayal of wanton life behind bars. His convicted respect for life, regardless of circumstances, stems from his background of service as Chief Medical Officer for the State of Alaska Department of Corrections and from his life-long involvement in third-world medical missions.
For readers looking for a bit of intrigue and suspense, the denouement will offer an unexpected conclusion. However, for the audience willing to linger and join the discussion fueled by the demands of Joseph Sherman, the story is just beginning.
- Michael Justus, MD