This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 27, 1991

November 27, 1991 - Final Exit

For many years, my mother was the head nurse of a geriatrics ward of a Veteran's Administration Hospital. During college, I worked for some time as a nursing home orderly.

One night, my mother and I talked about our experiences. Most of mom's patients were over 80. Many of them hadn't spoken or stirred in over a decade. And at least once a week, one of those patients started to die.

Now there are two things a nurse can do in that situation. One of them is to follow procedure: hit the Code Blue button. Instantly, a team of specialists would descend on the body to revive it, using whatever steps might be necessary.

After watching this team "restore" several people who hadn't shown any signs of life for years, my mother became more and more opposed to this practice. One day she decided that if a patient said he was ready to die, or if the patient had been comatose for a long period, then according to her own, long-seasoned judgment, she would chose the second and unsanctioned option: she would let him die. In every case, she would also sit holding that person's hand until he was long past the point of recovery. Only then would she hit the button. I don't know exactly how many people my mother allowed to die -- several dozen, I think.

All of this came back to me one day when suddenly I was the one making that decision. It was in the anxious days just after my mother's stroke. I had a dream that my mother died. I woke up, then sat shaking till dawn. Exhausted and stricken, I didn't go to the hospital to see my mother the following afternoon. So I was the only person home when the call came.

It was her doctor. He said that the only way my mother could continue to live was if he hooked her up to a life-support system. Immediately. All of my family had just left the hospital, and wouldn't be home for an hour. He was just calling to inform someone that he was about to do this.

I took a deep breath, then forbad the doctor from taking any extraordinary measures. He said, "I don't think you don't have the authority to decide this." I said, "My mother and I have discussed this issue at length. I am the executor of her will. I know her feelings. If you attach her to a life-support system, I'll sue you."
I had never made such a threat in all my life. And I don't like lawsuits. But I did know that I was honoring my mother's wishes.

After a pause, the doctor said, "All right."

Then, of course, I tried to make the drive to the hospital before she died. I was too late. But sitting in that room with her corpse, despite my sorrow, I had no regrets.

I mention all this because I recently directed the purchase of a book that is bound to upset some people. The book is called "Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying," by Derek Humphrey, which at this writing occupies the number one spot on the bestseller list (and has been requested by several of our patrons). Sponsored by the Hemlock Society, "Final Exit" tells people how to assume responsibility for their own deaths. Let's take that one step further: this book tells people how to kill themselves (although as a review in the November "Wilson Library Bulletin" points out, "the Society is careful to make it clear that it does not encourage suicide for emotional, traumatic, or financial reasons").

The publisher of the book, Stephen Schragis, has his own story. In the August 30, 1991 issue of "Publisher's Weekly," he wrote, "In 1989 my wife and I faced a nightmare I will never forget: the American medical system, which insisted on keeping our newborn child `alive' despite a near total lack of brain function or ability to think, reason, or even move. A decision that ought to have been ours alone was being made by others."

So he published a book that instructs people -- adults, in some very strictly defined circumstances -- how to end their own lives, mostly through prescription drugs.

You may not agree with the idea behind this book. Some of you surely do not. But it is the mission of a library to provide information, to set before the body politic those choices -- and opposing viewpoints -- that matter.

Naturally, the library does have materials representing more traditional viewpoints. But "the right to die" is an issue now under discussion all across the country, and "Final Exit" is a catalyst for that discussion.

Sooner or later, it's a subject that all of us will need to face.

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