If it weren’t for the cops, I’d want Louise to pull the trigger.
Jerry and Ellen Gilland were married in 1969, two years before Louise and I tied the knot, them in Florida and us in Detroit. They bounced around Florida for a few years, living in Sorrento, Mount Plymouth, and Orlando before settling in New Smyrna Beach where they lived when Jerry started getting really sick.
Really sick as in terminally ill. They tried to handle his illness at home, but around Christmas Jerry started going downhill fast. He told Ellen he couldn’t handle the situation and planned to shoot himself to end it all when things got so bad there was no point in continuing to live, infirm and in pain. After 52 years of marriage, Ellen understood.
But, finally, they couldn’t handle the situation at home: Jerry was admitted to AdventHealth Hospital in Daytona Beach and put in a room on the 11th floor, which was almost entirely occupied by people waiting to die.
Jerry continued to deteriorate and finally, last weekend, asked Ellen to bring their gun into the hospital so he could end his own life. She agreed and brought in the weapon, but Jerry was so weak he couldn’t lift it to his own head. So, in what was apparently a final act of love and compassion after all those years together, she fired the shot for him that ended his misery.
Her plan, she told police, was to kill herself next: her life partner was gone and she’d just committed what everybody from their church to the State of Florida said was an unpardonable crime. But she just couldn’t do it.
Alerted by the hospital that a patient had been shot on the 11th floor, a Daytona Beach Police SWAT team of men armed with automatic weapons and body armor crashed the door, threw in explosive flash-bang grenades, and shot Ellen with a painful metal-filled, plastic-coated “non-lethal” round sometimes euphemistically called a “beanbag.”
She’s now in jail without bond, facing charges of first-degree murder. No husband, no family, no friends. Alone. Miserable. No doubt terrified. And in pain from being shot by the police.
This is not how Americans should die, but Jerry and Ellen lived in Florida where the GOP runs things and “death with dignity” is considered every bit as blasphemous as expanding Medicaid to provide healthcare to low-income people.
Louise and I have discussed how we would deal with a crisis like Jerry and Ellen faced.
The difference is that we live in Oregon, where the law allows my physician (with the concurrence of a second doc) to prescribe a little bottle of orange-flavored barbiturate strong enough to put me to sleep and then slowly, quietly, over an hour or so, stop my heart and breathing once I’m deeply unconscious.
Just like we’ve lovingly and tearfully said good-bye to at least a dozen cats and dogs over the 50 years we’ve been married.
Dying on your own terms when you’re in miserable pain and just a step short of that eternal portal is, after all, the humane thing to do. The dignified thing to do.
To leave this life surrounded by friends and family is, in our opinion, also the loving thing to do. The final act of a lifetime performance on this earthly plane, conducted with quiet peace and calm resolve. Without fear.
Oregon was the first state in the nation to put a “Death with Dignity” law into place, twice, by citizen ballot initiative in 1994 and 1997 (the second time by an even larger margin). It was appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined it conformed with both the state and federal constitutions. The federal government appealed, but the Supreme Court affirmed Oregon’s right to the law in 2006.
Since then, Washington State, California, Maine, Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, Montana, and Vermont have passed similar laws. According to the Gallup organization, such laws are supported by 73 percent of Americans.
Oregon reports that about a third of the patients who are prescribed lethal medication after jumping through all the necessary legal and medical hoops go on to die without using it. People report a sort of peace comes over them when they know they can end things whenever they choose and under the circumstances they choose.
A decade or so ago I had a person on my radio program who’d been prescribed such medication. He told me that he’d look at the bottle and relax, knowing that no matter how hard, how terrible things got, he always had a safe, comfortable way out. We later learned he died of his disease without using the drug.
Every American should have access to death with dignity.
Many in the health industry who make big money off the last months of life — usually the most medically expensive part of an entire lifetime — oppose the idea, as does the Catholic church that considers suicide a mortal sin. But neither profit nor religion should require humans to suffer in traumatic pain that will simply end in death anyway.
Canada has legalized death with dignity, as did Spain, recently becoming the sixth developed country to do so nationwide. Efforts to pass a national death with dignity law here in the US, however, are regularly blocked by mostly Republican politicians dancing to the tune of their religious and medical industry supporters.
In Montana, a group of legislators is actively trying to get that state’s death with dignity law repealed.
Meanwhile, down in Florida it looks like the state is going to try to send Ellen Gilland to prison for the rest of her life.
Life shouldn’t have to end this way. Check out DeathWithDignity.org to see the status of your state and what you can do to help.