In the second part of a conversation, Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with public radio host Diane Rehm about her husband's battle with Parkinson's Disease. When John Rehm could not legally receive medically aid to die comfortably, he followed his doctor's suggestion and starved himself to death. The experience set Rehm on a path to better understanding medically assisted death, which is only legal in a handful of states. Rehm is also preparing to retire this fall, after she turns 80. Her new book is "On My Own."
Hear the first part of our discussion with Diane Rehm from Monday's show here.
Book Excerpt: 'On My Own'
By Diane Rehm
On June 14, 2014, my husband, John Rehm—age eighty- three—began his withdrawal from life. The aides at Brighton Gardens were instructed to stop bringing medications, menus, or water. His decision to die came after a long and diffi- cult conversation the day before with Dr. Roy Fried, his primary physician; our son, David; our daughter, Jennifer, who was on the phone from Boston; and me.
John declared to Dr. Fried that because Parkinson’s disease had so affected him that he no longer had the use of his hands, arms, or legs, because he could no longer stand, walk, eat, bathe, or in any way care for himself on his own, he was now ready to die. He said that he understood the disease was progressing, taking him further and further into incapacity, with no hope of improvement. Therefore, he wanted to end his life.
Clearly, his expectation—and his misunderstanding—was that, now that he had made his decision, he could simply be “put to sleep” immediately, with medication. When Dr. Fried explained that he was unable to carry out John’s wishes, that he was prohibited from committing such an act in the state of Maryland, John became very angry. He said, “I feel betrayed.” Tears came into his eyes, tears of frustration and disappointment. Here was a man who had lived his life able, for the most part, to take charge of events, to be certain that his well-considered decisions would be carried out. And now he was making the ultimate decision, and having it thwarted.
It was then that Dr. Fried explained that the only alternative John had, if he truly wished to die, was to stop eating, drinking fluids, or taking medications. In other words, he could bring his life to an end through those means, but no one could do it for him. Dr. Fried added that he hoped John would not make the decision to end his life, but that, if he did so, as his physician he would honor it.
My husband had moved into assisted living at Brighton Gar- dens in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in November 2012, because he could no longer stand or walk without falling, or care for himself without assistance. We’d spent months talking about the deci- sion we both knew was coming. We went over and over various possibilities, such as having someone move into our apartment to care for him on a twenty-four-hour basis, but we knew that wouldn’t work: there was simply not enough room for another human to be here full-time.
Most days I spent part of the afternoon with John at Brighton Gardens. Sometimes we’d sit silently, particularly in the weeks immediately after he moved in. Although he never admitted feeling resentful, it was clear he was unhappy. He had a private room, but was now in an institution, in the company of strang- ers, eating foods he didn’t care for in a large communal din- ing room, and feeling an extreme loss of privacy. But slowly he regained his sense of humor, his interest in world events, and his happiness each time I walked through the door.
Over the years, John and I had talked many times about how we wanted to die. We had promised that we would do everything we could to support each other’s wishes in the face of debilitat-ing and unalterable conditions. Yet here I was, helpless to keep my promise. I could do nothing but listen as he railed against a medical and judicial system that prohibited a doctor from help- ing him die, even knowing that what awaited him was prolonged misery, further decline, and, to his mind, loss of dignity.
Excerpted from the book ON MY OWN by Diane Rehm. Copyright 2016 by Diane Rehm. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
This segment aired on May 3, 2016.