Friday, May 6, 2011

The Suicide Tourist

I just watched a documentary, called "The Suicide Tourist." It's an very moving, powerful, documentary, chronicling the final days, and eventual suicide, Craig Ewert. The documentary takes place in Europe, and gives an extremely intimate view, of Craig's life, and death. It is a highly thought provoking piece, that raises many questions, about quality of life, and the right to die. Craig himself, is very articulate, and poses some strong arguments, for his decision, and his opinions, on living, suffering, and on dying. I think it offers an exceptional example of why people, OUGHT to have the right to "die with dignity" and demonstrates good arguments, for why euthanasia should be legal, here in the USA. On a whole, the documentary is very tastefully done, and an incredibly brave, and generous contribution to society, on the part of Craig, his wife, and his children. If I could, I would like to thank Craig, and his family, for their willingness to share his story. I have a high respect for his loved ones, in that they supported his difficult decision, and stood by his side (particularly his wife), while he carried out his wishes.

Craig and his wife, both American citizens, had moved to Europe, before he got sick. They had two grown children, and decided they wanted to travel, and live abroad. Craig, who had been a professor of computer science, got a teaching job in England, and he and his wife relocated. His wife started started studying for a Phd, in law, and they were enjoying living their new life together. Everything changed, when Craig started feeling weak, and ultimately was given the ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) diagnosis, and told his best case scenario, was two to five years left, to live. Around six months, after being diagnosed with ALS , and his rapid deterioration in health, Craig decided he wanted to end his life.

He started doing research, and was disappointed to discover that physician assisted suicide, was only legal in three states (I know of Oregon & Washington). He became frustrated by the fact, that people expected him to just accept his fate, and feared more than anything, what life would be like, once he could no longer speak, or communicate. He feared becoming a prisoner, in his own body (which I feel I am- even though I can communicate- and know what it's like to be completely paralyzed, without speech, from my time spent hooked up to a ventilator) and doubted his life, or death would be as "peaceful" as third party accounts described. He brought up an excellent point, that just because a person is "still," to the casual observer, it doesn't mean that the person is at peace. Being trapped, with no way to communicate, and stuck with nothing but your thoughts, and hauntingly painful memories, is anything, but peaceful. I know from experience. It is hell, and pure torture.

Wanting to prevent further suffering, and speed up the process, of his inevitable death, Craig continued his search for a legal way to end his life, and discussed his viewpoint, feelings and fears, with his wife and children. Realizing that he was suffering, and death was fast approaching, his family respected his wishes, and supported him, in carrying them out. He ultimately found out about Dignitas, a clinic in Switzerland, which offers assisted suicide services, to Swiss citizens, and foreigners alike. Knowing he had to be able to swallow the lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital himself, and that his window of opportunity was closing (due to his degenerative disease, and the unpredictable nature of the illness), he set up his appointment, and was accepted, to receive their services.

During the filming of his four, final days, Craig talked about his reasoning behind wanting to commit suicide, and his opinions on it being illegal, throughout the UK, and much of the US. He very poignantly expressed the fact that, many people throw the issue of God, into the matter, as a leading factor, for why there isn't more support, for assisted suicide, and how it is ironically unfair, that "playing God" is seemingly only a matter of contention, when it involves ending a life (and suffering), versus saving it. He pointed out the glaringly obvious distinction, where doctors "play God," by saving newborn babies (through extreme medical intervention) and keep people alive, unnaturally long lifespans, through medicine, and machines, but that it's "ok" to "play God," when it preserves life. He pointed out the fact, that his respirator, had been "playing God," keeping him alive, and couldn't understand why it was only acceptable, to intervene in extending life, but unacceptable to end life, even when there is no hope of cure, and definite suffering present. I too, do not understand, the rationale, behind this unjust form of thinking.

The documentary discusses Swiss law, and says (which I've read in many articles) that because of the fact that euthanasia is illegal, in the UK, and most of the US, the Swiss government has seen a huge influx, in "suicide tourism," and that outside countries (namely the US & UK) have been pressuring Switzerland to reject foreign petitions, to die within their country. This scrutiny has made it difficult, for clinics like Dignitas, to accept any, but the most extreme, and most desperate of cases. Luckily for Craig, he met Dignitas' criteria.

I think it's a shame that people like Craig (and myself) are forced into living with incurable, extreme disabilities, essentially against our will. I can completely relate, to his suffering, his viewpoint on being forced into dependence, and his fears of feeling trapped, and hopeless. It is a shame, that anyone should have to fly half way around the world, and petition a foreign country, to die a dignified death. I think it is cruel, that our society (and the UK) would rather watch people suffer, who would otherwise be dead, if it were not for medical intervention, than to allow us, to choose what we can tolerate, and what we deem, is a life worth living. Why is it so wrong, to offer a peaceful death, to someone who has no means of living, on their own, to whom medical science can offer no cure, and who is, in his/her own opinion experiencing suffering? It makes me angry, that people like me and Craig have to leave the country, or slowly starve ourselves to death, or slowly die from infection, rather than be given a HUMANE, easy alternative, because other people (who have no clue what it's like to be in our shoes) think it's "right," or "wrong."

I know the pain, and loss, that Craig was faced with, and why he decided to end his life. I know, very well, the terror of being completely reliant on others, and the heaviness, of feeling like a burden. I too, know the sadness, and disappointment, of having to express feelings of wanting die, to the people I love, and the pain and guilt, that comes along with deciding I want to give up on life. I know the shame, blame, and guilt, that society at large, and religion, bears down on the individual. It is a horrible situation to be in.

I know what it's like to look into the eyes, of the people I love, and tell them that I feel my life is no longer worth living. I'm living through that pain, right now, and know how hard it is to let go, even though every fiber of my being is exhausted, and wanting to give in, my conscious keeps reminding me, of the pain my death will cause, and I wish I knew a way to avoid hurting the people I love, while at the same time ending my own suffering. I know how horribly frustrating it is, to be a prisoner, within your body. I'm trapped, exactly like Craig, and I understand his desire to escape.

I applaud Craig, for his courage, and his family, for their selflessness, and compassion. I don't think it's wrong, to want to die peacefully, when death is inevitable, and medicine offers no hope, of alleviating a person's pain, and all the future holds, is a life full of suffering. I wish I had a peaceful option; a means of escaping this life, that didn't involve added suffering, and putting my loved ones through a long, painful process, of watching me slowly die, day by day. I wish everyone could watch "The Suicide Tourist", and gain some perspective, on the fact that, sometimes the most humane, compassionate thing to do, is to offer a peaceful death, and to let go, versus sentencing someone (that would otherwise be dead anyway) to a lifetime of suffering.


Information about ALS-

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  1. Chrissy, I too watched The Suicide Tourist a few months back... and weeped simultaneously for the dignity and peaceful death of George & for my own frustration at not having that kind of option. There is just too much to comment upon, since I have read a few other posts of yours... and hear how unbearable things are for you. I have been compelled to read further because you have written thoughts so similar to my own, I know what courage it takes to voice a feeling that loved ones undoubtedly don't want to hear. Whilst I would dare never think to say that you should keep living a life that is a meaningless prison, I can't help telling you that I feel sadness. For your pain and suffering, for the feelings of guilt, for the fact that at this time all that can be felt is the burden of your life and not the Beauty that you are, for that loss to life. It is a strange thing to write all of this, because I feel all the same things you are writing about, yet when I hear your voice through your words, and see your spirit through your art, I experience you as a beautiful person.

  2. I am confused. Why didn't he opt to not use a ventilator?