Late last night I was flipping channels out in the living room while my wife and dog slept peacefully in the bedroom. Somehow I ended up catching the last 1/2 hour or so Frontline’s The Suicide Tourist – a very powerful documentary about Craig Ewert and his choice to die in peace versus die painfully from the ravages of his progressing ALS disease.
The documentary was exceedingly well produced and Craig’s candid final steps with his reflections and family and filmed death-bed scene in Switzerland under the supervision of Dignitas’s director, Ludwig Minelli, was truly remarkable. I think the scene of Craig sipping his death prescription, followed by pleas for an apple juice chaser, while his wife rubbed his sock covered feet protruding at the end of his death-bed, really gave new meaning to the term last straw.
Seeing this actual death on my TV screen was a bit surreal and on some level I couldn’t help think that it was all staged, that he was an actor, would pop out of bed when the scene was over and months later be on stage accepting a film award for best actor.
But no, it was real death. And the humility of seeing his wife leave their rented Swiss apartment, have the bell man put Craig’s empty folded wheelchair in the trunk of the black Mercedes limo to escort Mary to the airport, was indeed humbling.
The documentary was so real that I could feel Craig’s suffering – from his ventilator to his wheelchair and helpless dependence on others.
Mapping it Back to My Own Data Point
About seven years ago around this time, I awoke in a hospital bed after having spent six plus hours trapped in my car in seven degree winter weather, only to be miraculously extradited and airlifted to a local hospital. When I gained consciousness, I had tubes everywhere, was strapped into the bed complete with nonmoving neck brace.
My first thoughts were, “Yippee I’m still alive. There is hope. I didn’t die on the side of a lone winter road in vain. I have a chance.” But these thoughts were quickly dispelled when the doctors said that I had broken my neck (along with many other bones) and might be paralyzed.
The fear of being trapped in my body was horrifying. I was already trapped in that hospital bed and all the noises from the tubes, the discomfort, the sorrow in my fiancé and family’s eyes, was more painful than the physical agony that permeated my physical body. Yet the fear that this state of being would be permanent was, well, something I would never wish on anybody.
Three months of hospital care and approx. a year later with great physical therapists, and now I can get out of bed on my own and type my thoughts like I am doing now.
Yet the experience of being a prisoner to one’s body is a legacy that still haunts me. To this day I can not wear a necktie, nor a turtleneck or even a t-shirt with stitched neck collar that rises too far above my collar bones. The memory of other nursing home patients crying out in the middle of the night for help because they could not breathe and the ventilator alarms going off in their rooms and in the alarms in the nursing stations, still brings me back to the times when my ventilators went down and alarms went off and my feelings of drowning from lack of breath – all of which still bring chills to my soul.
It Is a Love Story
So when I watched Craig and Mary Ewert’s story, I knew I couldn’t change the channel and I encourage everybody to do the same – you can see it free online here.
And you can read more about the Ewert family’s thoughts three and half years later at this link.
In the end, the Ewert’s story is a love story. A love for life, a love for each other, a love for family, a love for decency and a love for individual freedoms – especially a love for choice, in this case end of life choice.
In one part on the PBS web site Mary is quoted, “My challenge moving forward will be continued activism on issues involving what we do with our bodies. One important question is whether the state or church have a right to demand suffering at the end of life.”
She goes on and says “… our society places an inordinate emphasis on the emotional aspect of dying, urging patients to fight death, to be brave warriors in the face of death. The decision to quietly, gracefully accept and welcome death is at odds with the emotional battle against death. Both are ways of dealing with death, one is not better than the other. However, both approaches should be respected. I fear that acceptance of death is still viewed as somehow bizarre and frightening, something to be forbidden.”
Human suffering stinks and it boggles my mind to think how cruel and inhuman our supposedly technologically advanced, forward thinking society is when we treat elder dying pets with more compassion than we do humans.
I’ve never met the Ewerts but salute them for their sharing and leadership in advancing sensible end of life options. If only our global government leaders can tap similar sensibilities but I digress!