I came across this description of the duties of a physician, from an 1858 lecture to medical students: diagnosis, treatment, the relief of symptoms, and the provision of safe passage.
The provision of safe passage struck me as a concept we would do well to rehabilitate. It is an evocative phrase: protecting and helping someone on a long voyage. That is generally not how we are taught to think about death in medical school. Death is failure! It is a cliff, a precipice to be avoided, rather than a voyage that everyone ultimately has to make. We have a tendency to approach the precipice in one of three ways: most often, we try to keep the dying patient from falling over the edge, wrapping them up and pulling them back from the brink with ventilator hoses and feeding tubes and intravenous drips and every heroically inappropriate medical intervention and test we can conceive of; or we realize that there’s nothing we can do, so we abandon them; or, increasingly, in the name of “compassion,” we push them over the edge with physician-assisted suicide. What a difference it could make if, instead of treating death as a precipice from which we attempt to keep a patient indefinitely, we understood death as a voyage each person will have to make. What a difference if, instead of being trained to stave off the inevitable at any cost, doctors were trained to recognize — and to help patients recognize — when the voyage is approaching, how to help patients to prepare for it, and how to help them to make it a “safe passage,” a good death for them and their families.