The other night, I watched a documentary on PBS’ Frontline program. The show was called “Suicide Tourist”. It portrayed the struggle of Craig Ewert, a middle-aged man that contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). His disease progressed rapidly, as ALS is wont to do. In three months he was already on a ventilator. For those of you that do not know what ALS is, it is the wasting away of the muscles in the body. This includes all muscles, the heart, the lungs everything- but your mind remains intact. Its not uncommon for people to end up on machines, not even able to blink their eyes, but be literally trapped in a shell of a body.
Mr. Ewert chose to go to Switzerland, helped by an organization called Dignitas, to assist in ending his life. The documentary followed his decision, how his family reacted, and the eventual ending of his life.
To preface, I watched this while my mother, who was dying of disease very similar to ALS, was still living. I watched it again on Tuesday night. Though I recommend this program as a naked examination of the process someone goes through to get to this decision, I don’t recommend it if you are not able to handle it. It does show Mr. Ewert die.
So after the program I ventured online to read the comments on PBS.org’s site dedicated to this program. The comments, overall, were better thought out than most that I see on websites that welcome comments. But there was much about the program and the people’s reaction to it that disturbed me.
Let me state at the outset that I am not in favor of or believe in suicide as a solution to anything. As a Christian, I believe it is a sin to take out of the hands of God the decision of when you are to die. But I am not a hyprocrite. I do know that I daily take out of the hands of God things I should not. So I don’t believe I am somehow more righteous than others because I don’t believe in suicide. Sin is sin, not matter if its gossiping, taking the Lord’s name in vain or taking ones own life.
However, what disturbed me was the way that Mr. Ewerts family seemed to easily allow him to do what he wished without even suggesting alternatives. He was a former college professor who had decided to live abroad after he retired, his wife in tow, who was getting her PHD late in life as well, was an agnostic and obviously well educated. But, as with many in our society that rise to the level of “education” that he had achieved, they think that their lives end at our last breath and that he is in control of everything. When he lost that control, it was easier to say adieu. I am speaking as one that watched a loved one die of a disease very similar to this one. In the documentary, his wife didn’t say once that she didn’t want him to do this, even when he said he was scared. When he said he didn’t want his children present, because he would continue to talk to them and not want to go through with it, didn’t the children say, ok then I will come, because I want you to live longer?
I can hear the shieks now. That would be for them, not him! He is dying a horrible death and in his own words ” I have the choice of death or suffering and death. I choose the former.” I talked to my mother about this documentary after I watched it during one of our many heart felt talks those last months. She said she found it selfish and could never do such a thing. This was a woman who needed help to facilitate her bowel movements and couldn’t swallow without choking. This was a woman who had taken “mustard” (the stuff the nazis gassed the Jews with in the camps) in liquid form through the veins in her feet as a cancer treatment. If anyone was ready to die many times, I’m sure it would have been her.
As I watched it again, post her death, I felt sadness for Mr. Ewert that only someone who has been on the front lines of these diseases will ever know. I knew why he was doing it. Any rational person would choose it. But when something like this happens to you, rational isn’t enough. There is more to us than a body with a disease. We have souls-something Mr. Ewert flatly said he didn’t believe. I was sorry for him because of that, not just his ALS. Just because you didn’t believe it, sir, doesn’t make it false. He said he would hope for the best, if he was wrong. Isn’t that something we shouldn’t leave up to chance?
Then there were the comments. So many people were angry at those that didn’t support his right to choose this. Unfortunately, there are those in power in this world, that would love to Euthanise those that are considered a “burden” on society. The mentally infirm, the physically ill. This is why many are so upset about the health care debate. You’ve heard of the “death panels”? If it were up to the government to decide who gets care and who doesn’t depending on a line on a graph, my mother would have died years ago. So when I see people commenting that everyone should have that right, and we should have it legal here, I wonder if they really think these things through.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. I get why Mr. Ewert did what he did. But as he sipped the medication that was going to end his life to the strains of Beethoven and his wife patting his hand, I felt a little sick. Sick that he had to go through it and sick that he felt he needed to do it.
And I wept.