How Physician Assisted Suicide Could Affect People With Disabilities

As a quadriplegic who has been paralyzed from the chest down for over 24 years, I want to address the dangerous potential ramifications of legalizing physician assisted suicide (PAS) from a viewpoint of personal experience. I will divide them in to two distinct categories: past and present.

The past danger I am referring to concerns the time when I was first paralyzed. My paralysis is the result of a broken neck and spinal cord injury from a car accident in 1975. I was 21 years old, at that time. I don't even remember the accident. The last thing I recall is being in a nightclub. When I regained consciousness 3 days later, I was in a Portland hospital paralyzed (at first) from the neck down. I also had a severe concussion, collapsed left lung and crushed left collarbone. A pair of metal tongs had been drilled into my skull and attached to weights to stabilize my neck and I was on a slab of a bed that turned me from back to front every 4 hours. Add to this cheery scenario the fact that I was soon greeted by a doctor who told me I was not supposed to have lived as long as I had, would most likely die shortly, or, in the best case would spend the remainder of my life confined to a wheelchair and you know I was not in the best of moods.

After I surprised the doctors and lived to get into rehab, they told me, at that time, the average lifespan of a male quadriplegic was 36 years. By then, I would probably die from a pressure sore, kidney failure, or other related complication. That meant my best hope was 15 more years paralyzed. I'm 45 now and can look back on that laughingly. It wasn't so funny then. I spent 6 weeks getting medically stable followed by 4 and a half months in rehabilitation. During that period, there were MANY times when I didn't know if I wanted to go on. However, since part of the rehab program was having a social worker evaluate patients regularly for suicidal tendencies, I didn't want to be the "weakling" that needed counseling, those thoughts simply came and went.

Then there's the cost issue. My time in the hospital cost my father's insurance company roughly $100,000. That is a pittance now, but was considered a king's ransom then. I have no idea what my adaptive equipment (electric wheelchairs, special beds, lifts for transfer from chair to bed...) has totaled since. Then, there's the costs of attendant care over the years, the 7 surgeries I've had from complications to the accident...

What have I done since the accident? I have lived semi-independently for nearly 23 years. In 1985, I graduated the University of Southern Maine with a B.A. in Communication. In 1989, I graduated Regent University in Virginia Beach with an M.A. in Creative Writing/Journalism. While there, I also worked with a large non-profit organization, received an outstanding service award for working 5 years in an inner city project, wrote and sold 2 radio dramas that were nationally syndicated, wrote a one-act play that was produced several times, plus worked on a national presidential campaign. After returning to Maine in 1992, I founded and published a Christian newsletter in 1993. I have been highly politically active, serving on the Boards of multiple non-profit organizations. To put it simply, my life has been, and continues to be, full and productive.

My past concern is simple. What would I have done if PAS had been an option when I was first injured or during any of the critical complications I've been through since. In retrospect, there were many times when I don't know. I can't begin to express the roller coaster of emotional ups and downs I went through. Now, I'm incredibly grateful that PAS wasn't an option.

My other concern is with the present. In the past year, I've had to battle both the Legislature and the Department of Human Services to keep my attendant care funding from being cut, lost all of my physical therapy due to insurance cost cutting, plus am still wrestling with my insurance companies over who's going to pay for what on my much needed new wheelchair. Given the current trend of insurance companies and government bureaucracies to cut costs any way possible, especially by racheting back all benefits to consumers, I find this to be a VERY real danger.

The bottom line is simple. A traumatic injury, such as mine, is a life changing experience of indescribable dimensions. When first faced with the reality of my paralysis, I spent many frustrating hours wondering whether or not life would be worth living. Fortunately, every aspect of my treatment/rehab... was geared toward encouraging me to overcome my obstacles and move on toward a positive and productive life. Next, the financial costs of saving my life, getting me ready to mold back into society, and maintaining my extra needs (wheelchairs, attendants...) have made me "more expensive" than the average able-bodied person. Again, fortunately, my insurances never looked at me that way and, until recently. Now, anyone who has had any involvement with our medical system knows of the increased financial belt tightening.

Add legalized PAS to this picture and I foresee a very real nightmare. I have been diagnosed as imminently terminal three times since my accident. Each time, my lifespan was supposed to be measured in days. The difference is, all three times, every medical effort was made to save me. Physicians, insurance companies always thought that way.. They put the patient first an worried about the cost later. Adding legalized PAS in, could be the last building block in the destruction of that system. When doctors are forced to make life ending drugs an equal option to life saving therapy, I can foresee the strong possibility of many disabled people being killed early as opposed to moving on to leading full productive lives that positively affect society for many years to come. When the cost factor is added in, our odds get rapidly worse. With health care professionals being forced by insurance companies/bureaucracies to balance cutting costs against what's in the best interest of their patient, add in legalized PAS and the possibility of being offered a cheap end to your life as opposed to an astronomically expensive long term plan of treatment is all to real.

In conclusion, lest you think this only affects the disabled, please remember, that every day, when you drive to the store, walk across the street..., you are potentially the next paralyzed statistic. It can happen to anyone anytime. Paralyzing accidents are striking new victims daily. For their sake, I hope the entire PAS concept dies a swift death, thus allowing our health care professionals to fully concentrate on saving and improving our lives.

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