If you did not see Terry Pratchett – Choosing to Die on BBC 2, last night, I urge you to do so. If you type BBC 2 + Terry Pratchett into your search engine, you will have a number of choices. You are looking for http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b012 which does not seem to work if you type in the exact address.
You can stream this on your computer for only six more days, so don’t put it off. During the hour-long program, viewers see a person drink a toxic brew, kiss his wife, and actually die. This is not an easy program to watch, but it needs watching. The debate over assisted suicide has always been contentious. This morning, BBC is subject to the hot debate. A live death on TV? How dare they promote euthanasia? (BBC did not promote euthanasia, but that is how the fallout lies.)
A bit of background. If you read science fiction/fantasy, you know of Sir Terry Pratchett, a prolific writer of Young Adult fiction, a man whose books have been translated into 36 languages, a man who can no longer type but who now dictates his novels to Rob Wilkins, his assistant. Undeterred, Pratchett dictated I Shall Wear Midnight in 2010 and Snuff: a Novel of Discworld in 2011.
Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008 and since that time he has been concerned about the end game. Dying a good death with Alzheimer’s is a tricky business: to be a candidate for legal assisted suicide, you must be of sound mind and able to express your wishes. If you have Alzheimer’s, how long can you wait? If you let the decision go too long, it may be too late. Haunted by these thoughts, Pratchett called on the BBC to film his exploring the issues with a number of people who had considered suicide.
Being in control of one’s destiny seems to very important. Pratchett said, “If I know that I could die at any time I wanted… then every day would be as precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice. A time will come when words will fail me…”
Part of the program was shot at Dignitas in Switzerland. Swiss nationals have the option of dying in their own home; however, foreigners must avail themselves of Dignitas, a blue, metal-clad house in an industrial park outside of Zürich. The cost is 1,000 pounds which includes cremation or transport of the deceased to his home country. 70 percent of the people who visit Dignitas do not return to complete the process. 21 percent of those who interview do not have a terminal illness; rather, “they are experiencing a weariness of life.” Those who are deemed ‘weary’ are weeded out.
‘The step too far’ for many people was BBC’s filming Peter Smedley drink the poison and die within 15 minutes.
Personally, I thought it was a good death. The Smedleys, Pratchett, Rob Wilkins, Erica (who handled the paperwork and the potion for Dignitas) and the BBC film crew were in the room… having a very British cup of tea. Rather than lie down, Smedley chose to sit on a couch. His wife sat on one side; Erica sat on the other. First Smedley drank a mixture to coat his stomach. Erica asked, “Are you sure that you want to drink, to sleep to die?” Smedley affirmed that he did and then he drank the lethal cocktail. Typically, the “patient” dies within 15 minutes.
The wife, who supported Smedley’s right to choose, was stoic. She massaged his thigh and then moved on to rubbing his hands. Pratchett looked nervous. He had wrapped his arms tightly around his mid-section. He appeared to be physically holding himself together. Rob, Pratchett’s assistant was seriously uncomfortable. He wished that he were someplace else. Any place.
Smedley tried to put everyone at ease. Turning to Rob, Smedley said, “Have a good life. I know I’ve had.” He then thanked the members of the BBC crew and was embarrassed because he couldn’t remember the name of the sound man.
Smedley said that he was thirsty. He needed a drink. There would be no drink. Erica cradled his head on her breast and Smedley fell into a final sleep.
Erica then said to the others, “You are now allowed to cry.” The wife cried. Pratchett fought back the tears.
In conclusion,Pratchett says. “This was a happy event. When one thinks of the other circumstances under which a person can die… I’m not certain what I’d do. I want to stick around long enough to see assisted suicide in the U.K.”
Both of my parents experienced a bad death. My father died of congestive heart failure – his wrists raw and bloody from being strapped to the side of the bed. His hands were strapped to prevent his pulling out the needles and tubes that were keeping him alive.
As for my mother, she died eight years into her Alzheimer’s – Her quality of life was zero. She had lost the ability to talk, but her eyes spoke volumes.
Neither had made his wishes known. Had they written a living will, I would have had some guidance as to when to withdraw treatment that went nowhere.
Jeremy Paxton hosted a short debate/critique after the show. Some felt that the program was one-sided and did not address the legal issues or the “slippery slope” as it applies to the vulnerable and disabled.
My answer to those who judge the show harshly is that the program was not an over-view of the issues; rather, it was one man’s quest for a touchstone. Why are we so fearful of talking about death?
In 1997, Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act. We should take a hard look at it. What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? Can it be improved? Why is it so hard to have the conversation?