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Death with Dignity

Monday, November 20, 2023 1:54 PM

My home state of Michigan is currently contemplating the passage of a bill — dubbed the "Death with Dignity Act" — that would allow terminally ill adult patients to request medical aid to die. I know this is an emotionally charged topic, especially here in Michigan, given our history with notorious native son Dr. Jack Kevorkian, whose advocacy for phyisican-assisted suicide earned him the press nickname of "Dr. Death." Some people are adamantly opposed to this based on religious grounds, and I respect that. However, I feel strongly that human beings deserve to make this decision for themselves and shouldn't be constrained by other people's sincere, but incompatible, beliefs.

Why, you might ask? Because I watched my mom suffer for years as Alzheimer's swallowed her. She and I talked about this often before she became ill; I know this scenario was her worst nightmare. She did everything possible to stave it off: ate an incredibly healthy diet, exercised rigorously, stayed active mentally and physically. Her reward? Her body remained so stubbornly heatlhy that it kept her alive (in a Memory Care unit) for years after her mind had been crippled by the disease, leaving her incapable of communicating. That long, drawn-out process of withering away — what my dad called the "long goodbye" — sapped my dad's spirits and hastened his own decline. Mom would have been furious to see the cost her "zero-quality-of-life persistence" exacted on my dad's health. But she — and he — had no choice. In retrospect, that seems both tragic and cruel.

So, yes, I want my state to support death with dignity. I've often shared my own end-of-life wishes with my wife and sons (to the point where their eyes glaze over, I suspect): i.e., if I am slipping into the bottomless abyss of Alzheimer's, I want someone to help me exit on my own terms. My mom would have wanted that, for sure. I know I do! And I firmly believe I (as do all of us) deserve the right to make that decision for myself, to avoid burdening the people I love most on this planet.

Surviving isn't the same as living. Death isn't the worst fate someone can suffer. I've observed those harsh realities firsthand. After my mom's passing, I wrote a short story called "Mist at Twilight" (published in the anthology Tales from the Dream Zone) that focused on the plight of those with severe, late-stage Alzheimer's, and the choices they would make if given the chance. After watching her father succumb to complications from an experimental treatment, the protagonist (a neuroscientist) has a change of heart about what he had asked her to do on his behalf:

People chose the way they wanted to live. They should be allowed to choose the way they wanted to die. Dr. Tammy Bryant realized, in that moment, that most of all she craved that freedom for herself.

Again, I know that this topic is emotionally and spiritually fraught. I respect those who disagree with me. I just don't think they should dictate this intensely personal end-of-life decision for all of us. If you agree, consider donating to Death with Dignity. And here's hoping you never have to confront this decision, either for yourself or for someone you love.