Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Last night PBS aired a special by Frontline that chronicles the journey of Mary and Craig Ewert to Switzerland for his assisted suicide. Craig is diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease for five years and has decided to end his life in Switzerland, the only country where it is legal for non-residents to use legal assisted suicide. The special is called "The Suicide Tourist."
It's a grey morning here in New York and a thin spring-like snow is falling. The wind is whipping flakes and rain against the window here by my desk.
I've been wondering at the sadness that's come to me these past few weeks as I finished up my hospice volunteer training and spent a shift at the in-hospital hospice unit where I hope to be a regular volunteer. Watching the Frontline show this morning, I realize that the pace with which I move through my project on end of life care (the book, tentatively titled "to each his own death") has it's own unique rhythm. The emotion surrounding the issues of end of life care, assisted suicide, hospice care, are heavy; emotions we tend, as individuals, to avoid because of this weight. And I find the same feelings I had during the death of my own loved ones makes the subject much more important and present. I sit at my desk to work and my mind wanders to other tasks, seeks an escape from what I need to write. I have to work to bring back my concentration.
"The Suicide Tourist" is respectfully shot and poignant. It clearly, through Craig Ewert's words, makes the case that he sees AS as the most humane option. He explains that the respirator is "playing God" just as much as he is when ending his own life. He could, he says, choose death or death with suffering. He rationally accepts the former and tells a parable:
A monk is being chased by a tiger. He comes to the end of a cliff and lowers himself over the edge, hanging onto a tree root. The tiger above him paces and waits for him to tire, to come back over the cliff edge, so that he can eat him. The monk looks below and finds that there is another tiger, too waiting for him, to eat him. Growing on the side of the cliff, the monk notices a strawberry bush and on the bush is the most beautiful strawberry. He plucks the perfect strawberry from the bush and eats it and it is the most exquisite strawberry he has ever tasted.
Ewert wants to live in the moment, to love life, and yet to face the fact that death comes.
The footage of his death is surprisingly peaceful. He must drink the medication himself. He must switch off the respirator that maintains his life himself. He doesn't have the strength in his hands to do so but the Dignitas social worker holds up the switch so that he may close it with his teeth. He does not hesitate. He has been firm in his decision for months. Mary rubs his feet as he drinks the phenobarbital that will make him sleep then die.
Then she moves up to sit on the bed with him and touches his hands as he falls asleep.
I realized, watching the end segments, that my tears weren't for Craig Ewert but for Mary, who has cared for Craig for years, brushing his teeth, scratching his eyebrow, attending to all the needs that we are so accustomed to doing for ourselves. She walks out of her hotel in Switzerland alone, with an empty wheelchair, to return home to her two adult children and a new sort of life.
You can watch the entire segment at PBS here. Please write to tell me what you think.