An Important End of Life Question
A provoking conversation with NPR’s host Diane Rehm about her husband’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease. When John Rehm could not legally receive medical aid to die comfortably, he followed his doctor’s suggestion and starved himself to death. The experience set Rehm on a path to better understanding medically assisted death and the right to die, which is only legal in a handful of states. Rehm is also preparing to retire this fall, after she turns 80. Her new book is “On My Own.”
Diane Rehm’s Story: An Excerpt From Her Book
On June 14, 2014, my husband, John Rehm—age eighty- three—began his withdrawal from life. The aides at Brighton Gardens were instructed to stop bringing medications, menus, or water. His decision to die came after a long and difficult conversation the day before with Dr. Roy Fried, his primary physician; our son, David; our daughter, Jennifer, who was on the phone from Boston; and me.
John declared to Dr. Fried that because Parkinson’s disease had so affected him that he no longer had the use of his hands, arms, or legs, because he could no longer stand, walk, eat, bathe, or in any way care for himself on his own, he was now ready to die. He said that he understood the disease was progressing, taking him further and further into incapacity, with no hope of improvement. Therefore, he wanted to end his life.
Clearly, his expectation—and his misunderstanding—was that, now that he had made his decision, he could simply be “put to sleep” immediately, with medication. When Dr. Fried explained that he was unable to carry out John’s wishes, that he was prohibited from committing such an act in the state of Maryland, John became very angry. He said, “I feel betrayed.” Tears came into his eyes, tears of frustration and disappointment. Here was a man who had lived his life able, for the most part, to take charge of events, to be certain that his well-considered decisions would be carried out. And now he was making the ultimate decision expressing his right to die wishes and having it thwarted.
It was then that Dr. Fried explained that the only alternative John had, if he truly wished to die, was to stop eating, drinking fluids, or taking medications. In other words, he could bring his life to an end through those means, but no one could do it for him. Dr. Fried added that he hoped John would not make the decision to end his life, but that, if he did so, as his physician he would honor it.
Experiencing the painful and debilitating illness of a loved one, Diane seeks to understand the right to die concept. As she watches her husband withdraw from life, she realizes that this is not about the right the die, but the right to choose. Many of us are not sure what we would choose to do under the circumstances, but we know we do not want someone else deciding for us. The right to die or the right to choose are very personal decisions influenced by a myriad of factors and is a discussion best had during healthy times. Your family wants to know your wishes to avoid any unnecessary suffering.