There are experiences in life that radically change our perspective. Those that we have previously regarded as granitic certainties, can melt like snow before the onset of illness. This is what happened to Sylvie Menard, born in 1948, French oncological researcher now settled in Italy. Since three years she has retired after having worked at the Institute for Tumours in Milan and having been director of the Department of Experimental Oncology.
A pupil of Professor Umberto Veronesi, she was in favour of euthanasia, because she was convinced that life in certain debilitating conditions, was not worthy of being lived. “Then suddenly I met death, we looked in each other eyes and only then I understood how precious was every single moment of life”, she reveals to In Terris.
“It was the end of the seventies, I was thirty-year-old, I considered prof. Veronesi a master from the scientific and philosophical point of view – she says – and when he suggested the introduction in the legislative sphere of living wills and euthanasia, I followed him convinced”.
The “Case Englaro” and the specific legislative proposals on end of life were far from coming. At that time in Italy the debate on these issues was exclusive prerogative of some sectors of the scientific world infected by the existential individualism coming from the ’68. “I was of the opinion that in the case of disabilities, living was not worth, so I was in favour of euthanasia”, she tells. After all – she continues – “I was young, I had not yet reflected on what death really is”. “I thought – she cuts short – that it would never concern me“.
Change of perspective
Then, the classic situation that you do not expect touches you. In 2004, following a sudden illness, I was diagnosed with an incurable tumour. “The experience of sickness – she explains – all of a sudden brings back the patient on earth, death is no longer virtual but a reality that can take over at any time. That is why everything changes“. It is in that moment that Dr Menard understood that “life is not an unlimited resource, you can also waste it, but it is a precious thing“. After so much suffering due to the illness, her convictions changed completely. “Life is a wonderful gift despite the atrocious pains, the transplants,” she says. And she thanks the therapies that years before, being in good health, she would have refused a priori, because “those therapies have granted me to be here today, to continue to live and to know my grandchildren”.
Dr Menard was yesterday morning at the Chamber of the Deputies, as speaker at a press conference organised by the Association ProLife on the law on living wills, being discussed by the European Parliament in these weeks. The theme is provoking a vibrant debate with many criticisms: ProLife is collecting signatures to attempt to stop the approval of the text.
“First of all, I would like to say – observes Menard – that this law is completely useless“. The oncologist states in fact that “a healthy person, who has never seen death in the eyes, cannot know how to react in the event of illness”. In her opinion, “no sick person, before becoming one, would have liked to find themselves in a wheelchair or with the brain fogged”. And yet – she continues – “many sick people have a great desire to live in the situation in which they are“.
“Myself, today, I appreciate life more than ever before – she says -. I appreciate it in every small nuance, in every detail, in each moment lived, because I know that death can arrive at any moment”. Therefore, it makes no sense to “sign while you are in good health a living will containing the provisions for doctors for the case in which you may be disable“.
According to her, “it would be necessary to remove the word ‘dignity’ from this text of the law and replace it with ‘pride‘”. And she entrusts to a rhetorical question the explanation of this concept: “What do healthy people have that is more dignifying compared to the sick ones?”. “There is no disease – she answers – that leads a person to be unworthy”. Indeed, it is precisely in this disease, sometimes, that human dignity and love for neighbour know their maximum expression. This is testified by all those seriously ill patients and by their families carrying forward with perseverance the battle for life, animated by the conviction that the next treatment will be the right one.