June 9 2015 06:56 PM

Cold, hard facts gleaned by networking with right-to-die activists


Hemlock, a poisonous herb in the parsley family, is fatal. According to medical experts, the death is drawn out with painful convulsive gasping. Putting it in a tea probably won't do the job. You'll just end up on a respirator waiting for acknowledgement of your Do Not Resuscitate Order. A long painful death is not the preferred option supported by the Hemlock Society, nor most people. Hemlock is their name, not their method. 

San Diego has the only active Hemlock Society left in the United States, their President Faye Girsch tells me. In 2003, Hemlock USA split into two other entities with different names: Compassion and Choices, which focuses on right-to-die legislative change; and Final Exit Network which also supports legislative change, but "recognizes the need NOW for compassionate support and death with dignity education in all states," according to its website. 

Hemlock Society San Diego is closely affiliated with the Final Exit Network. If you call the HSSD and ask what you can do to control your own death, they'll refer you to FEN.

When I first heard about the Hemlock Society in the early '80s, right after the original organization was founded, I pictured a coven concocting recipes of death over a cauldron. I had a morbid imagination even then. But I appreciated the Hemlock Society's intentions—to help people choose a peaceful death. I pictured that same coven gathering around deathbeds putting the terminally ill to sleep. The Hemlock Society isn't a coven and does not pass out poison recipes. They sell a do-it-yourself video instead.  

I watched the video. How could I not? 

It was like watching Alistair Cooke commit suicide. He starts off with a sewing lesson. First you create a hem on a turkey-roasting bag. Elastic is pulled through the hem with a safety pin. After the bag is stitched up nicely and tested over the head for correct fit, the video camera pans to a drawing room. The big red upholstered armchair was what made me think Masterpiece Theater. The narrator's British accent helped, too. The British not only kill themselves with dignity, but with impeccable diction. Next to the red armchair sits two helium tanks. The Final Exit Network endorses the "helium method" for taking one's own life. You will have to watch the video to get full instructions. But, safe to say, it's painless, quiet and quick. Isn't that how we all want to go? 

Suicide is not illegal. Assisting suicide is. You can take your own life, but you can't help someone else. You'll be hauled off to jail for helping a disabled person drink the pentobarbital, or turning on the helium tanks, or even putting the turkey roasting bag over their head. 

Brittany Maynard and her mother Debbie Ziegler
Photo courtesy of Compassion and Choices

Last year, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old dying of brain cancer who moved to Oregon from California to take advantage of Oregon's Death with Dignity law, was national news. Only five states have Death with Dignity choice. That's where the Final Exit Network comes in: for the other 45 states.

Last week in California, the state Senate voted to advance legislation that would allow physicians to assist terminally ill patients who choose to end their own lives. The End Of Life Option Act passed the Senate with a vote of 23-14, and now moves forward to the state Assembly, where two similar bills stalled in the past. The legislation would have to be signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not indicated whether he would sign the measure into law.  

As comedian/TV host Bill Maher said, "What liberty could be more individual than the liberty to not become a drooling, mind-fried flesh pod?"

Monthly HSSD public meetings educate the San Diego community about end-of-life choices. The May meeting was filled to the brim. Held at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley, three speakers provided information on the legal battles ongoing across the country. The battles are not only efforts to legislate Death with Dignity, but also in defense of people who are accused of assisting suicides. 

I picked up a FEN newsletter and found an ad for cartoon coordinator and another offering training on how to become an "exit guide." Qualifications required of an exit guide: "able and willing to travel, sometimes on short notice, flexibility to adapt to changing situations, detail-minded—ability to put first the member being served, and—communicate with empathy and kindness." Proficiency at PowerPoint is a plus. (Okay, I added that last one.) 

Besides sounding like an empath from Star Trek, an exit guide provided by FEN is a compassionate soul who is present, but does not assist, a person who has decided to take their own life. Unlike other Right to Die organizations, FEN does not discriminate against non-terminally ill patients. Think: Alzheimer's patients or people with severe debilitating chronic pain who want to go when they want to go. Isn't it always best to leave the party while it's still fun?

The HSSD meeting's Q&A was not at all what I expected. No pity party among these folks. Everyone in the audience knew they were going to die (we all are) and they want to make sure they are in control over how and when. Getting hit by a bus is obviously one exception where you don't have control, but so is ending up in a hospital that disregards your living will. 

A woman with a name tag made out in giant scrawl raised her hand, "I have macular degeneration and while I can see right now, in fact I drove myself here..." (Mental note: wait until the parking lot empties before leaving). She was concerned about the news that the Party City helium tanks were only 80 percent helium now.  This was a big issue, and not for balloons. There's a chance the Helium Method could be faulty. Party City is the best source for helium. Unless you are a birthday party clown or watched the Alistair Cooke suicide video, you might not know this. 

The next questions were about substitutes. If the most reliable method now was full of air, how could they ensure a timely death? Nitrous oxide? Nitrogen? Finally, everyone was reminded that as long as oxygen is displaced, anything will work.

The Hemlock Society's website states its mission as "Choice, dignity and control at the end of life." These folks are not afraid of death, and when it's time, they want to do it right. 


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