Sunday, May 6, 2012

"I’ve suffered enough"- A Young Woman’s Quest for a Peaceful End to an “Intolerable” Life

In 2005, 25-year-old Christina broke her neck in a diving accident, paralyzing her from the neck down. So began her journey of hope, determination, courage, disillusionment, and finally resignation. “I think it’s important to share my story,” Christina wrote, and so her story is shared by NJ Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun.

Christina didn’t give up on life, initially believing “that my will would be strong enough to cure me.” Braun writes, “Christina taught herself how to paint holding a brush in her mouth and her paintings were displayed in galleries throughout the state. She became an advocate for stem cell research and the needs of the paralyzed." She even tried to rekindle a romance with the man she had intended to marry, Jimmy.

But over the years, her life became more and more “intolerable” both physically and psychologically, until she finally asked herself in the Spring of 2011, "Is this life worth living for ME, or am I just prolonging my own suffering?"

Still, she soldiered on, even treating her friend and former romance Jimmy, half-sister Kati, and mother Louise to a trip to Disney World in September 2011. But, writes Braun, Christina “spent much of the time too sick to come out of her hotel room.” That was a decisive moment. Upset about the burden she was on others, and tired of suffering, Christina took matters into her own hands. With the respectful support of the people closest to her, she stopped eating and began an agonizing two-month descent toward death.

But Christina’s decision was by no means spur-of-the-moment. Writes Braun:

About two years ago, her mother said, she began researching how she could legally end her own life. She began communicating with Jeanne Kerwin, the coordinator for Ethics and Palliative Care Services at Overlook Medical Center in Summit [NJ]. "I became a kind of informal consultant to her, a friend really," said Kerwin. "She was never my patient but she asked me questions about palliative care and how she could end her suffering."
Kerwin’s involvement was “controversial” within Christina’s family. In particular, her Aunt Mary Ellen, a university nursing department head, said, " ‘I was not thrilled with the information she was receiving. I’m concerned that those who believe in ending a suffering person’s life will destroy the motivation for research into cures and the amelioration of suffering.’ "

This - that an actual individual must endure indeterminate, involuntary, “intolerable” suffering lest some distant researcher lose his “motivation” - is the morally and logically bizarre type of rationale that blocks enactment of humane “right-to-die” laws. Though free to consult psychologists, lawyers, and physicians to ensure, according to Kerwin, “that the responsibility for whatever happened was hers alone,” Christina was legally forbidden to get the physician assistance she sought in the one way she needed it most - to fulfil her final wish quickly and peacefully.

And so Christina suffered needlessly for two more months, and finally died on December 1, 2012. In a final moving blog post about life, “Quality Vs. Quantity”, published after her death, Christina explained the reasons for her decision, and concluded:

At some point, I feel justified in saying I've suffered enough. I feel it's horribly unfair, that I'm forced to live, the way paralysis has forced on ME. I'm not talking about "quadriplegics," I'm talking about Christina Symanski. … I can't speak for anyone but myself, in terms of quality of life. … So then I'm left with the question, "is it really worth living?" Not for everyone else's reasons, or for anyone else, but ME. …I don't view THIS as a quality life.

Fittingly, if perhaps coincidentally, Braun notes that Christina’s final instructions included her wish "to be cremated, her ashes mixed with fireworks and then skyrocketed over the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border this Independence Day."

Christina was born on July 4th, 1980.

[Note: I have long believed that the moral principle of individual rights justifies that physician-assisted suicide in terminal cases be legal. But this story raises the question: What about a state of living death? Obviously the legal issues are complex. But, morally, a person has the right to end an intolerable, hopeless life; and should also have the legal right. In that vein, I urge the reader to read Christina's final blog post, Quality vs. Quantity, in full. In very moving fashion, Christina methodically and rationally explains what brought her to her final decision. Her personal saga is as good a case for physician-assisted suicide for the non-terminally ill as you'll probably find anywhere.]

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