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King: Death with dignity should be a right

POSTED: January 10, 2012 1:00 a.m.

This is the year I turn 80. I've written hundreds of columns for this paper, but this could "push the envelope" and may upset many people.

Here it is: If we are a free people living in a free country, we should have the right to die at a time and in the manner of our own choosing; but for all our many freedoms and civil rights, Americans cannot say, "This is enough. I'm ready to go."

Suicide is an ugly word, but as long as an individual does not have a legal right to end his life when and how he wants, regret, grief, even guilt will accompany every passing.

"What if I'd ... ? Would mom have been better off if we'd ...? If only ..."

Every family experiences death at some time. Many families, more than you know, experience suicide. It's not something we talk about. That needs to change. To plan one's own demise is
neither gruesome nor sad. It's liberating.

My mother had polio as a young woman. As she aged, she experienced post-polio syndrome: Her muscles began to fail, and in her 80s she became more or less helpless. She was ready to go, but her vital organs were still strong. Her last words before she stopped talking were, "I guess Jesus doesn't want me." She lived to age 97.

Today one of my dearest friends wants to die. She knows she is sinking into senility and she's frantic. When I talk to her on the phone (she lives four states away) all she asks is to be free of this life. All she wants from her daughter is help dying. This is something the daughter could do because she is a doctor, but it is also the one thing she cannot and will not do — because she is a doctor.

Then there was the friend who didn't make it. She was a nurse and had saved various medications for a time when she was ready to "pass over" as she put it. When she became helpless, nearly blind, almost deaf, and unable to get around, she took her pills and pulled a plastic bag over her head. But someone found her.

I was called and rode with the ambulance to the hospital where she wound up on the psychiatric ward because anyone who tries to commit suicide is considered crazy.

I don't want to end my life that way. I want to gather my friends and family around me, share a meal, reminisce and laugh over the past ... and drink my hemlock. This is not narcissistic or godless. This is not selfish or irresponsible. Above all, it is not an easy way out. It takes courage to pull your own plug.

Those who believe only God should decide the hour of our death forget the many things we do to prolong life. If only God can will the heart to stop or the lungs to fail, then organ transplants and other life-prolonging procedures are ungodly at best, and those who believe the individual must suffer through to the end forget the cost to others.

The last months of life can be very expensive. Of the people who die in a given year, some 80 percent are Medicare beneficiaries. Even then some families take out loans or second mortgages or spend their life's savings to pay for end-of-life care for family members who want nothing more than a dignified, painless release.

Hospice promises this, but it's not free. It's a business like any other business, and for those who really want to die, it only prolongs the inevitable. For the determined there is always a way, but a bullet to the brain or a slashed wrist are messy things.

Death itself need not be ugly. It can and should be a blessing. A death with dignity is the ultimate human right.

Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com.



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