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​Marijuana, Hospice and End of Life Care – Dying with Dignity

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Marijuana, Hospice and End of Life Care – Dying with Dignity

Dying is something we all must do. Although we may rather not think about it, we all know it is inevitable. In my opinion, the awareness of our own mortality is part of what it means to be human.

If we live long enough, we will most likely witness the death of multiple loved one’s – our grandparents, our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, pets, and, heaven forbid, even our own children. To stop and think about this may make us feel extremely uncomfortable, anxious, nervous and scared. So what can we do about it? More than you might think!

For most of my adult life, and even before, I have been surrounded by death and it has fascinated and intrigued me. It may seem strange, but please hold your reservations and allow me to explain.

As a child, I witnessed the death of 2 family pets. When I was a young teen, my family took my grandmother in because she had Alzheimer’s/dementia and needed 24/7 care. She lived with my family for 7 years before she passed. When she did, she did so peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones. I watched her take her last breath and enter the afterlife. Anyone that has had a similar experience will probably attest to the surreal feeling that follows you after such an event – it changes you, hopefully for the better.

Around the age of 18, I began college and started working as a homecare/hospice caregiver. Most people react to the word “hospice” very interestingly – usually saying things like “that must’ve been rough” or “wow! I don’t know how you do that”. But, to me, dying and being a part of the dying process can be the most beautiful thing in the world. It can also be ugly, usually if there is unnecessary suffering. Most of the patients that I had a pleasure to serve were imminently dying. I want to share some stories with you in an effort to shed a more positive light on the dying process. I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert, having taken care of hundreds of patients who were imminently dying – spending the last years, months, weeks and/or days with them until they passed. I have witnessed about a dozen people take their last earthly breath, and I was there for countless individuals and families throughout the entirety of the dying process. As I write this, my eyes are welt up with tears as I think about my experiences. Some are tears of sadness, but mostly they are tears of joy and happiness. I am so very grateful and blessed to have served people in the most intimate of capacities. It has truly been an honor to have given my time, love and compassion to those in the most vulnerable of positions. Love is watching someone die.

In my years as a caregiver, I took care of 2 men who had ALS. I consider both of them to be amongst the most influential people in my life – true mentors in every dimension of the word. Many people would consider ALS to be a horrible disease and one that brings about great suffering. After all, the disease essentially leaves you as a prisoner in your own body. Those diagnosed with ALS gradually lose control of the ability to move, while simultaneously having full knowledge and cognitive awareness of what is happening. Most people diagnosed with ALS will die within 3 years. Of the two men that I took care of, one died 10 years after being diagnosed (3 years after I began working with him) and the other died 8 months after diagnosis; I was there for 7 of them. What really amazed me was how much Cannabis (AKA Marijuana) relieved suffering, not only for the individuals, but for the families as well. It relieved both men’s physical and emotional pain, decreased tremors and acted as a catalyst for therapeutic conversations. Me, the individual and the families bonded and let down our emotional barriers with one another. There is something about Cannabis which helps to dissolve the walls we build up to protect ourselves from being emotionally vulnerable. Those who are imminently dying experience their life through a different set of lenses then the rest of us. It’s hard to explain, but one of the reasons I always enjoyed working with individuals close to death is that there is very little bullshit. There’s no façade; they are real with you. Both of these men were real through and through. They found meaning in their suffering and never felt sorry for themselves. They cared more about their loved one’s then they did for themselves. They inspired everyone around them. We laughed, cried, debated and had intimate life-changing conversations. Our relationships were reciprocal; they did as much for me as I for them. Words will never be able to accurately capture the time we spent and the lasting impact it has had on me. Telling their stories keeps them alive and they live on through their family and friends. Both of these men died with dignity even though they broke the law to attain relief from suffering.

Ewing Sarcoma – brain tumors. This diagnosis brought about frequent seizures and the need for pills, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. Going through that probably sounds awful, right? What would you expect a person to look like in this situation? Emaciated? Beat down? Suffering with low quality of life? Typically, this would be the case, but not for the man I cared for. He was the toughest and most determined son of a bitch I ever met. He had two young children that he cared for with the help of his parents and ex-wife. He smoked cannabis all day, every day, and alas! He gained weight to the point of concern that the weight gain might affect his well-being! This is unheard of for patients on chemotherapy who normally lose weight very drastically. I was truly amazed at how much cannabis he would smoke and how much it helped him. He asserted that had it not been for cannabis, he would have died long before the multiple brain surgeries and treatments that followed. He accepted his mortality in his 30s and passed before his 40s. He never complained, but rather pushed himself beyond normal human capacity. He was fearless, hilarious, determined and a pleasure to hang out with. He was a true badass that turned his suffering into a heroic story, one that I often think about and love to share. His jokes and his shit-eating-grin still crack me up whenever I stop and think about him. He drove us all crazy and worried us half to death because he pushed himself so much. We constantly reminded him to “take it easy”, but he never did. He wanted to experience life to its fullest. He loved to take day trips, go for walks, shoot guns – against all advice of course – and be reckless. He experienced a freedom that most of us can only hope to attain. He never became a victim of his diagnosis and he lived his life fearlessly. I can only hope that we can all experience quality of life similar to his.

I have many more examples of how Marijuana has helped to relived suffering of those that I cared for. All patients who are towards the end of their lives should consider medical marijuana. Coming to grips with death doesn’t have to be scary, it can be beautiful and inspiring. We all have to do it, and if we are lucky, it will be a gradual process. Marijuana can help to make the process a bearable one for the individual as well as family and friends of the person dying. I invite anyone reading this to ask me questions and would advise all of you to spend some time with the imminently dying. It is one of the best things you can do for your soul. I have a respect and admiration for death. My experience with death has changed my life. I take nothing and no one for granted. It has inspired me to help patients attain marijuana as medicine. I am working on a start-up business to do exactly that. I am very happy that PA has legalized medical marijuana and hope to be a major contributor towards helping patients attain this life changing medicine.

Thanks for reading!

  • Nicholas John

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