Is This Pill Gonna Kill Me?

Blue pill? Red pill? Choose…


“Is this pill gonna kill me?”

That was a question an elderly patient asked his grandson, according to the hospice nurse who witnessed the moment.

The grandson was one of several family members caring for their dying patriarch. As with every hospice patient, several doctors agreed the grandfather had a terminal illness. A long life neared its end. The man’s family sought to ensure he was comfortable and that his death would be peaceful. There were no guarantees, but they’d try . . . with help from hospice.

Like many patients, the elderly gentleman distrusted pills. They were too darn expensive. There were way too many pills to swallow. Even though he was told the medicine would help him feel better, some seemed to do nothing. He believed others made him feel worse. Or they did cause him to feel better, but he wouldn’t admit it. Or maybe they had nothing to do with him feeling better or worse, but those over-priced, twice-a-day, after-a-meal, on-an-empty-stomach endless bottles of pills sure were convenient to blame.

And a pill, including medical procedures or medicines, might kill you! Everybody’s read the grim headlines: drugs with weird side effects, surgeons leaving equipment inside a body after the operation, and illnesses mismanaged or misdiagnosed or misunderstood. Too many misses! Health care seems like a health curse and just makes a fella feel crummy.

I get it. My father never wanted a surgeon to “cut into me.” Only awful things would happen in Dad’s view—as he suffered with prostate and knee problems that might’ve been relieved by routine procedures. Before and after his dementia, Dad distrusted . . . those pills they make me take.

“Is this pill gonna kill me?” our hospice patient asked his grandson.

In 1999’s “The Matrix,” the film’s hero is asked to choose a pill. Does Neo want to pursue a powerful truth—the red pill—or return to his normal and safe life with the blue pill?


I understood our elderly patient’s concern. Every “new” pill seems to drag him away from normal. How can he not be suspicious? Isn’t hospice just about dying? And yet I wonder if his pill concern is only a surface question. It is often safer to complain than to honestly explain. Is he afraid of dying? Is there something he must do or someone he wishes to see before he dies? Does he want to be told he’s loved, that he matters and his family is proud of him?

Often, near death, we begin to ask the essential questions.

But we’re only human, influenced by anxiety or hesitant to be vulnerable because we’ll upset our loved ones. And so, it’s easier to express anger over a pill, or grumble about a procedure.

It’s far more difficult—though also more life-giving—to openly choose to reveal fears and hopes and to give your family and friends a chance to respond with compassion.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.