Mike Klein Online

A Life No Longer Worth Living

Atlanta Mike Pix_Press_Club_189_-_Version_2Those who are inclined toward serious music appreciation will no doubt recognize Sir Edward Downes.  Long one of the world’s brilliant and remarkable conductors, Downes performed with distinction for the BBC Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House of London.  This summer Downes and his wife Joan ended their lives together at an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland.

Ted and Joan Downes met through the arts. He was the talented young conductor and she a Royal Ballet dancer.  They married 54 years ago, raised two children and lived a remarkable life on Europe’s and Australia’s greatest performing stages.  His particular specialty was Verdi.

At the end, the 85-year old Downes was almost blind and increasingly deaf, a cruel outcome for someone so devoted to music.  They made their final decision to peacefully die together when 74-year-old Lady Downes was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  There was no question that she would not survive, and he could not choose to live without her.  After their passing, the family issued a statement that Ted and Joan “died peacefully, and under circumstances of their own choosing.”

I cannot imagine any decision more profound than deciding how and on what terms to end one’s own life.  Nor can I imagine why government should be able to stand in the way.  Worldwide, some nations have regulatory laws and others have none.  Where there is regulation, it often is inconsistently applied.

Within these United States, nearly four dozen states have outlawed physician-assisted suicide including Georgia, where a conviction is punishable with up to five years in prison.  This spring the Georgia Bureau of Investigation launched an assisted suicide sting that resulted in several arrests.

The U.S. Supreme Court found in 1997 that the average American has no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.  Nine years later the Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law that specifies conditions under which assisted suicide can be pursued. Within that ruling the Court upheld the right of states to regulate medical practice, including physician-assisted suicide.

How-to-end-life decisions like this can touch any person, any family, including mine.  In the end, whenever possible, I believe the decision should be entirely personal.  You should own your life.

I have often wondered about the final hours of my great aunt’s life. Louise Heffer was born in the early 1900s in Illinois.  She battled pulmonary diseases starting in childhood.  One lung collapsed and to safeguard the child the best way doctors knew possible, Louise was sent to live Out West.

In adulthood, Louise became an intellectually gifted and proud woman.  She married but raised no children.  Maury and Louise Heffer traveled the world.  Business trips and vacations were routinely taken to Africa, Moscow during the Cold War years, Europe’s great cities, to Asia and anywhere that a cruise ship or an airplane would take them.

As years passed, Louise’s health began to preclude long distance travel but she remained remarkably engaged.  She volunteered at Northwestern University Medical Center in Chicago and would not accept compensation.  Louise knew what happens when health slips away.  She saw it.  She knew how to end life.

Louise declined quickly during the final couple years.  The single lung that sustained her more than 75 years lost capacity.  There were many hospitalizations, heart surgery and a pacemaker.  The last time I saw Louise she had just returned home following yet another long hospital stay.

Early one morning I received a call that Louise passed away.  The physician thought Louise made a mistake with her prescriptions.  Her heart stopped during the night while she slept.  Indeed, Louise might have made a mistake with her medication.  It also seems equally plausible that this proud woman knew exactly how to end life on her own terms.  Louise would not have needed physician assistance.

While the children of Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes appear at peace with their parents’ decision, government is not at peace.  British law prohibits any person from assisting a person to end their life, and punishment can be up to 14 years in prison.   Scotland Yard announced an investigation.

We already know how Lady Downes would feel about that.   At the end, she wrote this:

“All the plans that need to be made had been. Now, I must tell you that even though I had hoped to be around a bit longer, death doesn’t worry me at all.  I have no religion and as far as I am concerned it will be an ‘offswitch’ so after you have thought about it a bit don’t worry.  It has been a happy and interesting life and I have no regrets. I have no idea how long I will last but I send love to you all and your extensive families.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

“With love to you all, Joan.

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August 3, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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