Monday, August 29, 2011

My Longtime Tacoma Neighbor, Former Governor, And Death With Dignity

Former Governor Booth Gardner

I lived across the street from former Governor Booth Gardner for nine years. He lived in a very nice high rise condo and I lived in a five hundred square foot apartment. We had a lot in common though. We both have serious neurological diseases and we both had a view of the Puget Sound. I used to see Gardner out exercising with his walker alone or with his caregiver. I was either often asleep with profound fatigue or out pushing myself to walk or run as able. Gardner has Parkinson's and I have multiple sclerosis. Oddly enough, prior to moving to the north Tacoma location, I lived for five years in a building where his mother had previously lived. It seems we were meant to trail one another, though I am certain he does not know this. I figured he deserved his privacy, so I never invaded it. My neighbor went to visit him, but she cut the visit short because she felt uncomfortable. I wish I had visited him. I could still visit him. I want to visit him. I would not be uncomfortable at all because that's just the way I am. I once had an entire conversation with a MS patient at The University of Washington by reading her lips because she was not able to speak anymore.

A friend of mine told me today he is planning to end his battle with Parkinson's soon. This startled me. It scared me. I tried to hide my tears and fortunately a colleague came into his office and said it was time for lunch. I cried all the way out of the building. I was still crying when I went to buy the Vitamin D I take in a very large amount to combat my disease. I fully support my friend's decision because a late state neurological disease is pretty horrifying. Hollywood films depict death as a peaceful passing. Most deaths are not that peaceful. I have a friend who is paralyzed in a poorly funding nursing home. She shares it with dementia patients who scream unless they are asleep. My friend is trapped in a body that no longer works and her pending death is anything but dignified.

In November of 2008, Gardner was instrumental in passing The Death With Dignity Act in Washington State. The act legalizes physician assisted death with some restrictions. The measure is not without controversy. There are some who say it is up to God to decide when it is time to die. Others say they can make a deal with God about dying. Some say God does not exist. These are not the specific provisions in the measure, however, just the philosophical discussions I have had with people lately. In fact, the decision to die under the act must be approved by two oral and one written requests, two physicians to diagnose and determine the patient is competent, a waiting period and verification of the patient's decision. All involved who are acting in good faith are immune from civil and criminal penalties.

My friend has had a long and tremendously successful life. He recently held his first grandchild. He is a kind person. He is a good person and I think it is his decision about how long he wants to continue to battle an incurable condition. I do believe in God, but I also believe God does not punish anyone for making the decision to continue living under intolerable circumstances. I have no children. I live very far away from family members. I do not want to die of late stage MS in any nursing home. I have made a deal with God. Should it get severe, I will be able to choose to die versus continuing to live in a very undignified manner. Thanks to all the work Gardner has done, this Dignity With Death Act will be available to me. It won't be available to me anytime soon, however, because I am still fighting. In fact, I am not even close to dying. For that gift, and it is a gift, I thank God. My next move is to check up on Gardner like I should have done during those nine years. So many people are terrified of death and disability. The odd thing is it happens to all of us eventually. We may think we can cheat it, but so far we cannot. I think facing the fact we are going to die is actually making a choice to live boldly. It sure changes your priorities. What legacy do you want to leave behind? Since I have no children, I want to be remembered if even for one day as someone who fought tirelessly for people with disabilities. In fact, I would settle for fifteen minutes of recognition. Or maybe I don't need that recognition at all but just the chance to leave those footprints of justice on the earth. -Alison Whiteman


Madge said...

Wow Alison,
This is an excellent post. I didn't know about Booth Gardener having parkensons, and I live in Lacey. I think the death with dignity act is amazing, and I'm so glad that it is available to those that really need it. It's not fair to be forced to live when your body and will is broken beyond repair. I'm glad you are strong and still fighting.

Tacoma Gawker said...

Thank you Madge. It's a one day at a time issue for me. I try not to engage in self-pity as that has been proven to release chemicals that damage the immune system. Grief, sorrow and resentment have now been scientifically proven to cause inflammation which can lead to: cancer, diabetes, MS flares, etc. Of course science has yet to prove what definitely causes all of these diseases and yet international researchers are leaning towards non-contagious viral triggers.

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