Miracle Day and Death
Jill Buratto is a nurse specializing in end of life issues. She’s also my wife, and would be as happy as I would be if you backed my Patreon campaign for weekly episode reviews of Season Eight of Doctor Who. Then come back here and read her being righteously and beautifully angry.
It’s November 28th, 2013. Martin Garrix’s “Animals” tops the charts only to be ousted by Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” two days later. Elsewhere in the world, mass protests are occurring in Thailand as tensions between the opposition party and the prime minister’s family (read: his exiled brother) mount and, apparently, The New York Times has shown it’s first front-page nipple. So there’s that.
On TV: in a world in which no one can die, a young woman who has suffered what would formerly have been a fatal blood clot in her lungs. She is pregnant when this happens and is currently connected to all manner of drains and tubes and medical equipment in order to allow this fetus to gestate in her essentially dead body. She and the fetus she is carrying were deprived of oxygen thanks to that blood clot and her husband and parents look on in horror at the entire ordeal. Both the young woman and her husband were paramedics and understood the limits of what modern medicine could do, neither of them wanted her preserved this way. The Miracle destroyed any autonomy in death this young woman would have and should have had.
Except it wasn’t the Miracle that caused this. It was us. Her name was Marlise Munoz and she was 33 years old when she died. Her husband did everything right, but there was nothing to be done. She was brain dead. But, the definition of death for John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas was somewhat more… flexible. They kept her heart beating for weeks because of a loophole in the law stating that life support could not be revoked from a pregnant woman despite her wishes. It was only when the hospital was sued for the “cruel and obscene mutilation of a corpse” and they admitted that the fetus was developing “abnormally” that Marlise was allowed to rest.
Miracle Day goes out of its way to make a parallel of our world, a world in which this could happen. It builds a platform for an argument about the treatment of illness, dying and death in our culture. It meticulously constructs a modest proposal indicating the natural extreme of our death-denying culture. So, after all that effort, what does Miracle Day end up saying about death? Well, it says nothing at all.
No, that is perhaps a bit harsh and untrue. Miracle Day clearly says that the way we treat the sick and the dying is bad and we should feel bad. Which is worth examining.
There is an inherent classism in healthcare on a global scale. Despite the long list of countries who have decided that healthcare is a basic human right, globally, healthcare is available only to those who have the means. Part of the reason the Ebola epidemic in Africa is gaining spreading quite this quickly is the lack of a vaccine or any available treatment for the virus. As a virus, the hope to find an effective treatment or “cure” is slim but why haven’t we found a vaccine for this virus with mortality rates up to ninety percent? Because there is “no market” for the vaccine. The virus is endemic to Africa and kills it’s victims quickly. Why should money be spent on producing a vaccine for it?
It is the same quandary faced with tuberculosis. Because the disease has been relegated to mostly third-world countries, we count on older treatments to treat and cure the incredibly infectious bacteria and avoid spending the money on new research and treatment modalities. The problem is that, as the bacteria learns and adapts to the drugs we used, multi-drug resistant strains are becoming more and more common. This is downright terrifying in a world where someone can hop on a plane and be halfway around the world, bringing the disease with them. But the infected are simply Category Ones. We can close their borders, wall them in and let them die off. Diseases are not pretty, not fun to look at so we look away. We hide them from view. We burn them out of our minds just as surely as the overflow camps burned the terminal.
In the end, that is the biggest problem with Miracle Day. It comes so close to saying something important about illness and death. I watched the way the Category Ones were treated, saw them stacked out of view in the storage closets of the overflow camps and I had hope. Hope that this show would finally, finally make other people understand why I hate closing the doors of other patients’ rooms when we wheel someone down to the morgue, why I hate the stupid morgue stretcher and the stupid cover that is supposed to make it seem like a delivery cart bringing food or supplies to the floor but is just a clumsy attempt to hide that someone died, why I hate that death and dying are bad words on a fucking oncology floor where we should be helping our patients prepare for the, probably imminent, eventuality of their own mortality. But it doesn’t. It never stands up and says “this is life and that’s okay.” It never acknowledges that death happens and never acknowledges the unnaturalness of a world in which death does not happen. It lets death stay big and scary and other.
The death of Miracle Day is a death of a thousand little blows. There isn’t one big, resounding moment that can be pointed at to explain where the death narrative went off the rails. In fact, I spent most of this second viewing of the show (this pass after I had worked at a hospice facility and had spent a significant amount of time with those who would be unequivocally Category Ones) still hoping that it would recover. Because it always could. If someone, anyone had taken a moment to examine not just the way that the Category Ones were treated but the fundamental wrongness of the world when a thing like the Miracle is true, it could have recovered. No such moment happened.
And the most properly brilliant scene is the one in which this moment almost happens. In the second episode when, in the middle of a truly well constructed triage scene, Vera calls everything to a halt because the world doesn’t work this way anymore. She realizes that the medical staff fundamentally have to change their thinking and approach to healthcare in order to deal with the fallout from this so-called Miracle. The world is different than it was yesterday and we need to adapt. It was a punch-the-air moment for me and I was so excited moving forward into a show that decided to do a ten-episode rumination on death.
Which is why Vera’s line declaring that “we don’t deserve this miracle” in “Dead of Night” is so damaging. As the one person who has been in the trenches, who has seen the worst of the miracle and what it does to people, she shouldn’t have been the one spouting that bullshit. Because this is exactly the miracle we deserve. It is the logical endpoint of the pervasive, death-pathologizing culture we live in. There is real world suffering akin to the suffering of those who were “saved” by the Miracle that is caused simply because we cannot accept death as a part of life. There are those in pain and suffering because their families cannot accept that, someday, life will go on without them. We already live in the dystopian world that the Miracle created, it’s called modern medicine. The problem isn’t, as Vera suggests, that humans are going to screw it up. It’s that the end of death isn’t a miracle in the first place, and while the series seems to eventually settle on that, Vera of all people should know that instinctively. She’s just come from a scene where she rightly declares that babies born with their “brain outside the skull, no skin, no face, suffering” are in fact mistakes, and she still thinks the problem with the Miracle is that humans will screw it up and not that it’s just screwed up to begin with?
And the blows just kept coming. From Vera, the medical professional, the medical and ethical voice of the show, wondering if she could have “saved” her mother after the stroke by keeping her alive for a while longer to Gwen’s constant worry that she is killing her father by setting the world to rights, the blows rain down. And, of course, Gwen is another moral voice for Torchwood. She always has been. And it was heartbreaking to see the two most humanitarian characters, the ones who had seen and empathized with some of the worst of human suffering, thinking that condemning someone to an eternity of pain was somehow saving them. That living life partially conscious, dependent on pain medication to make the life the Miracle had provided bearable, was somehow better than death.
No one, not one person, stops to think about what it is like to be a Category One. The actual experience of living as Category One is never once examined. Gwen’s father is nothing more than a launchpad for her angst about resolving the Miracle. The Categories are instituted for the shock factor of burning people, for the highlighting of the gray areas between categories, for the demonstration of “officialdom” run amok. The entire show focuses on “the power” to declare someone dead or alive while completely ignoring the experience of the living death of a Category One. In “Categories of Life,” words like “vivisection” and living “petri dishes” are tossed around and we are meant to be horrified and disgusted that the governments would do this to living people but even the damn story doesn’t treat them as living people, they’re more props than anything else.
Let’s take Gwen’s father specifically as he is the only named Category One that we deal with extensively. We see that he is a sweet old man. We see that he is a sick old man. After his second heart attack, we see that he is a nearly comatose old man in a significant amount of pain. He is secluded into the basement of the house, hidden away and drugged up with diamorphone (which, for those readers in the US, is in fact the chemical name for heroin which is still used as an opioid painkiller in the UK. I had no idea either) in order to keep him comfortable. What sort of quality of life is that? What sort of life is that?
I am not, to be clear, saying that the Category Ones should, in fact, be burned alive. But no one stops to think about the life that they lead now. Even when approaching the end of the Miracle, Gwen needs reassurance from Rhys that this is the right thing to do. After seeing what her father was going through, Gwen still needed assurance from someone else that death is better than this existence. And, again, Rhys spectacularly fails to address that concern. He fobs it off with a dismissive “bless the poor bugger, he’s had his time.” No “it’s better than being burnt alive,” no “it’s better than living in a rat-infested basement in horrible pain for the rest of eternity.” Just the same fucking platitudes we spew today. The Miracle didn’t change anything.
And the one person who actually recognizes the personhood of the victims of the Miracle is Oswald fucking Danes. The goddamn pedophile and child murderer. The one whose glorious end involves calling out to all “the bad little girls” that he is following to hell. He is the one goddamn person who actually speaks to the Category Ones or soon to be Category Ones with any shred of respect for their autonomy as a human being, with any sort of compassion or empathy for the pain and trauma they are going through only to end his goddamn speech exalting that they will all live forever. The only person who attempts to empathize with them is a sociopathic narcissist who is spitting out a byline to recover some modicum of popularity in a world fundamentally changed by the Miracle.
I mean, the entire fucking thing is a mess.
In the end, death is not a condition that can be cured or ignored or avoided. It is a moment and it is not wrong or unnatural or immoral, it is a part of life as much as breathing is. There is no evading it, no escaping it. Death does not have morality or mercy, it is an absolute and fundamental part of human existence. With each medical advancement we seek to outpace the eventuality but we simply can’t. Every person who takes breath will someday die. And, in that, Gwen has some redemption. Her monologue in the final episode brings death back and rights the world. She bids the dead farewell and the whole wide world takes a breath. And just this once, everybody dies.
August 4, 2014 @ 1:41 am
What a beautiful article!
August 4, 2014 @ 1:56 am
August 4, 2014 @ 3:44 am
Killer line at the end.
August 4, 2014 @ 4:29 am
Thank you for this. I fucking despised Miracle Day and it's great to see someone put their finger on one of the things that bothered me about it. Give me a burping bin any day rather than this.
August 4, 2014 @ 4:34 am
August 4, 2014 @ 5:36 am
Huh, always wondered what your name was.
August 4, 2014 @ 8:01 am
This is fantastic. I'm going to send this to my friend who is a hospital (and now nursing home) chaplain and often sees death from the spiritual side of things.
On a logistical/administrative note, Phil, you forgot to include the link to your Patreon in the text. I would recommend that for accessibility reasons, you have the link be to text like "my Patreon campaign" instead of "here" because really, short non-descriptive links are almost impossible to understand for folks with visual disabilities using screen readers.
August 4, 2014 @ 8:59 am
Compare and contrast: Miracle Day and In the Flesh.
August 4, 2014 @ 11:14 am
A wonderful essay that encapsulates so well what precisely went, as I like to call it, most wrong about Miracle Day. Jill's ideas about the horrifying and schizophrenic way we deal with death in our society will sound radical to a lot of people — our cultural fear of death and refusal to accept it is largely overwhelming. And her ideas are a lot more relevant after watching the macabre circus of Jahi McMath's death that was never allowed to happen. Too many of us simply aren't ethically ready to handle medical technology as powerful as ours, which results in this kind of grotesquerie.
She's right as well about how the loudest voices advocating the extension of life at all costs are people who haven't seriously suffered or dealt with suffering people. When I worked in universities full time, I used to teach the ethics of health care some semesters, and the curriculum included academic philosophical articles discussing the appropriateness of palliative care and whether it is morally right for people to be allowed to die. I was actually offended by one article in particular, which argued that because any experience is, in the abstract sense, better than no experience at all, then no degree of human suffering could permit letting someone die.
I always found it very difficult teaching these arguments, because they were often written by professional philosophy teachers who had rarely worked in more intense hospital and home care environments. It always struck me that the voices of care workers who are often more critical of our attitude rarely seem to have much power to change our policies and begin the radical discussions we need to update our attitudes to death.
So thanks, Jill, for putting blankly just where Miracle Day fell terribly short from its great potential. Phil's posts were excellent at identifying how the program failed to reach its potential in narrative, characterization, and as a practical television production. But Jill identified the key philosophical shortcoming of Miracle Day. It offered us an opportunity to engage with death, through popular media, as a necessary and important part of life. Instead, it consistently shied away from the most difficult philosophical and ethical questions that it could have engaged with, skirting around their edges until the show finally stuck its fingers in its ears and pretended that nothing unsettling was happening at all. In so many sense of that term.
August 4, 2014 @ 11:43 am
My father passed away last year at age 82. He spent most of the last two months of his life in ICU and mos to that in a semi-conscious drugged up state, half-deaf, half-blind, with a tube stuck up every single orifice. During that time, I suspect his strongest moments of awareness of his surroundings came when relentlessly cheerful and upbeat strangers rolled him over so they could wipe his ass for him. Although I deferred to my mother's wishes (as she had an ironclad POA), I could not escape the feeling that everyone, acting with the best of intentions, was making my father's last days as miserable as possible in order to assuage their own personal consciences and religious beliefs (it was a Baptist hospital). I was profoundly relieved when my mother accepted that there was no possibility of him ever leaving the hospital and she decided to let nature take its course. It was then, that I made my own end of life decision.
In fifteen years, when I reach the age of 60 (earlier if I have any sort of health crisis), I plan to liquidate everything I own and travel the world until the money starts to run out. At that point, I'm going to Sweden or Norway or whatever country has the most liberal euthanasia laws by that point and I'm going to kill myself as painlessly and efficiently as possible. And if God has a problem with me killing my self and depriving Him of the chance to torture me to death, then He's a fucker and I would prefer to go to Hell than to spend eternity in His sanctimonious company.
August 4, 2014 @ 1:09 pm
Beautifully, wonderfully, angrily perfect Jill. We couldn't ask for more. Thanks.
August 5, 2014 @ 1:55 am
Yup, same reaction here. I have accidentally shocked people with my casual attitude to the bodies of loved ones in the past, and have tried to figure out what people are feeling that I am not – but this post has made me realise that it's not just me – death, like sex, is an area where nobody has really clear thinking. Thanks.
August 6, 2014 @ 12:05 am
My mum was a ward sister in a children's hospital, and ended up baptising lots of babies before they died because of how upset many parents would get if their child died unbaptised. She was only supposed to do it if she could see they were about to die, but given how often this wasn't possible she baptised all the children who only had a small chance of survival.
She herself was only technically C of E. She believed in God, but not really in any church – she thought Islam and Judaism just as valid as Christianity, for example, but didn't agree with any of the "my way or the highway" aspects of any religion. She passed on to me the idea that how you live your life is what is important. I've kept that part, even though I am not a theist.
Just an example of what people do to accommodate others' attitudes to death.
August 7, 2014 @ 10:43 pm
Absolutely agree Jane.
August 7, 2014 @ 10:52 pm
"The problem isn't, as Vera suggests, that humans are going to screw it up. It's that the end of death isn't a miracle in the first place"
Your whole article is wonderful, thank you Jill. I have tried to like Miracle Day and not quite been able to exactly touch on why I couldn't. You hit the nail on the head and with that quote above and your whole essay, you beautifully articulate it's problem.
I have worked around death for a long time, having adults with learning disabilities with whom I have worked die whilst I was with them, and spending two years working in an HIV/AIDS hospice in Scotland as an arts worker.
You are right, death should be rightfully acknowledged as a fundamental part of our lives, but it is not seen as that and Torchwood who could have spent time exploring the territory of death just ran away from it. Sad.