When My Time Comes
By Amy Kepferle
“My mother begged to die,” Diane Rehm writes in the preface of her new book, When My Time Comes: Conversations about Whether Those Who Are Dying Should Have the Right to Determine When Life Should End.
“There was no hope of recovery,” she continues. “There was nothing more they could do to ease her pain or to keep her comfortable. She died suffering.”
Rehm, a beloved National Public Radio talk show host and bestselling author, wondered why she’d had to watch her mother endure the horrific effects of non-alcohol-related cirrhosis for so long, and why she didn’t have the right to choose when she’d had enough.
The subject again became personal in 2014 when her husband of 55 years, John Rehm, decided to end his life when the side effects of Parkinson’s disease became overwhelming. He couldn’t use his hands, could no longer feed himself or use the bathroom on his own, and slept for most of the day.
“Because John could not receive medical aid in dying, he had to starve himself and go without medication for 10 days, until he died,” she relates during a chapter focusing on an interview with palliative care physician, internist and geriatrician Christina Puchalski. “I as his wife could do nothing but watch him suffer.”
Puchalski’s take on Rehm’s story is an interesting one. Although she has plenty of compassion for those who are facing their final journey, she has concern that in states where assisted suicide is legal—like Washington, Oregon, Maine, Vermont, California, New Jersey, and Colorado—people might be too quick to seek medical aid to quicken their deaths. She believes palliative care and hospice care can help with pain and symptom management, and can also be done with dignity.
“Are we giving a message that when you get to that point, there’s not a lot of opportunity for meaning and purpose and joy?” Puchalski asks.
At 83 years old, Rehm is a clear proponent of the right-to-die movement. But in When My Time Comes, she uses her interviewing prowess to explore the topic in ways that go beyond a simple “yes” or “no.” She questions terminal cancer patients—one of whom moved to Oregon so she’d be able to end her life on her own terms—and widowed spouses, doctors, death educators, reverends and Roman Catholic priests, constitutional law professors, attorneys and politicians for their opinions.
It’s heady reading, especially when hearing from those who know they’re running out of time. But it’s also a reminder that life is fleeting, and that it’s better to let your family and loved ones know what you want before its final chapter.
At the end of the book, Rehm even talks to her grandson, asking him to record their conversation on his iPhone for posterity. She then tells him that if she’s terminally ill and there is no reasonable expectation of her recovery from mental or physical disability, to let her die and not be kept alive by artificial means and heroic measures.
During “A Conversation with Diane Rehm” Tues., Feb. 11 at Sehome High School, the retired radio personality will be in conversation with local author Phyllis Shacter, who—like Rehm—watched her spouse choose to die via Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED) rather than live into the late stages of Alzheimer’s. The discussion is sure to be a fascinating one, and may help give attendees a clearer look at the bigger picture.
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