Monday, December 29, 2008

When Editors Write Obituaries

Another nice column from Elizabeth Lardie at Lemondrop in which she explores her reluctance over writing obituaries for people she does not know:

"I really don't think obituaries should ever be written by some no-name editor with a lot of deadlines and little life perspective. ... Because of this cookie-cutter process, obituaries start sounding like postmortem personal ads to me. "He was romantic, honest and loved eating out. In his spare time, he enjoyed taking long walks on the beach."

When my grandfather passed away, my family and I wrote his obituary. Has anyone had an experience with an obituary of a loved one being written by a paper's editor and not their actual family? I'd be curious to hear what it's like from the other side.

NPR Tribute to Eartha Kitt

NPR has posted an audio link to a 1993 piano jazz session with Eartha Kitt—the woman Orson Welles once called the most exciting woman in the world.

If you don't know Kitt apart from her role as catwoman on the old Batman TV show, you should check out the clip. She is graceful, classy, vivacious and full of life.

And, of course, it doesn't hurt that she was sexy as hell and approached life with great humor.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Televised Assisted Suicide in the U.S.

In the comments below, Dethmama asks whether assisted suicide has ever been televised in the U.S., as they have just done in Britain.

This is by no means a comprehensive answer, but I was reminded of 60 Minutes' interview with Dr. Jack Kevorkian from 1998, during which they televised the euthanasia of a man with Lou Gehrig's disease. (It was an actual euthanasia; Dr. Kevorkian was responsible for the act of death.) 

The interview was what led to Kevorkian's imprisonment for second-degree murder. He served about nine years of a 10–25 year sentence. 

I can't find the actual clip of the first interview, but I found this clip from a follow-up interview that shows most of the original piece within it. However, CBS' site won't let me embed it, so you'll have to follow the link to view. 

There are some marked differences between the U.S. piece and the British piece:

*First, the U.S. piece is as much about Kevorkian as it is about assisted suicide. 

*Second, I'm really struck by how the British piece gives the dying man a voice. And I realize someone with advanced Lou Gehrig's disease cannot speak well ... but there are other things that could be done—talking more to family, photos of his past, stories, etc. 

*Third, the British piece showed us an assisted suicide done through legal channels, so we are well positioned to confront the issue. The shock value of breaking the law, doing things behind closed doors, with shady methodology, all of that is gone. Dr. Kevorkian lost his medical license in 1991. Thus, he didn't have access to the usual cocktail of barbituates used for assisted suicide. What we see in the U.S. piece are his makeshift means. In the British piece, the man's death feels peaceful; he says goodbye to his wife. I see a death with dignity. In the U.S. piece, I see a more haphazard way of ending suffering. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Today Show on Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The Today Show had a segment this morning on the importance of keeping up-to-date carbon monoxide detectors in your home. As you would expect, the story began with the tale of a family who almost died due to carbon monoxide ... luckily they realized something was wrong and called 911 when they all came down with the same dramatic symptoms at the same time.

I don't want to minimize the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. Obviously, having a detector in your home is not a bad idea. And it's a terrible, avoidable tragedy if anyone dies by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

I'd just like to point out—I can't remember the last time I saw a major news show do a segment on the importance of keeping smoke detectors up-to-date. And according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, every year, accidental carbon monoxide poisoning kills 170 people, on average. In contrast, in 2006, fire claimed the lives of 2,580 people—that according to the Center for Disease Control.

This all reminds me of Amanda Ripley's book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, which I blogged about earlier this year. She came up with an equation about what elicits fear:

Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction + Unfairness

Both fire and carbon monoxide poisoning rank fairly high on this scale, but the carbon monoxide poisoning is especially potent. If you watch the NBC clip, you can imagine being the family, sleeping at home, and not even knowing a "silent killer" is attacking. The scale of destruction is low, but the suffering is high, it's unfamiliar to many of us, and it's certainly uncontrollable in many ways—that sense heightened by the fact that carbon monoxide is tasteless, odorless, and invisible. And with something like a poisonous gas that randomly seeps into the air, fairness doesn't even come into play. It gets pretty high marks on the fear scale.

What? A TV show using fear to hook in viewers? You're shocked, I know.

Anyway, get a carbon monoxide detector if you want. But if you're concerned about utility, check your smoke detector batteries first.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Assisted Suicide in Britain

Controversy has flared up over assisted suicide in Britain this past week.

This catalyst was a televised assisted suicide—the suicide of Craig Ewert who was 59 and suffering from motor neuron disease.

Ewert took a fatal dose of barbiturates in a Zurich clinic in 2006, although the documentary covering his decision and final act was first shown just last week.

Assisted suicide is illegal in Britain. According to the NY Times, about 100 Britons have committed assisted suicide in the past decade or so—by traveling to Switzerland or other locations where assisted suicide is legal.

I'm really glad the show aired. You all know I support death with dignity and assisted suicide, but beyond that, even for people who are against this movement, discussions like this get us all thinking and talking about death. And the more it comes into the open, the less alien it becomes. And I hope, the less frightening it becomes.

Ewert's wife was quoted in the New York Times saying, “For Craig, my husband, allowing the cameras to film his last moments in Zurich was about facing the end honestly,” she wrote in The Independent, a British newspaper. “He was keen to have it shown because when death is hidden and private, people don’t face their fears about it.”

My thoughts exactly.

Monday, December 15, 2008

NEJM Piece on Death with Dignity

From the New England Journal of Medicine, a nice overview piece on the passage of the Death with Dignity Act in Washington state, how it compares to the law in Oregon, what the two laws have meant for palliative care, and what they might mean for the future of palliative care.

It's a lot to cover in such a short article, but Dr. Robert Steinbrook offers a succinct and logical take on the controversies and goings-on.

One interesting point: due to legal challenges, Oregon law makers and health workers had about three years to figure out how to implement their version of the law, while Washington state will only have four months. How will this change the shape of care?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fear-based warnings don't stop smokers

A fascinating op-ed piece from today's New York Times.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Martin Lindstrom conducted a study that involved showing subjects warnings on cigarette packages from overseas. While U.S. packages have statements about the ill effects of smoking, many cigarette cartons overseas actually depict images of lung tumors caused by smoking, and other such graphic images.

MRI technology allows researchers to tell what parts of the brain receive oxygen, and hence, what part of the brain are in use. Lindstrom was looking to see if the warnings activated the amygdala—the part of the brain that registers alarm.

The images did not affect the amygdala. Instead, they affected the nucleus accumbens—the part of the brain that turns on when a person craves something.

So, it appears from this study, the warnings are having the exact opposite of the effect intended, and instead of savings lives, may actually be helping lead to preventable deaths through smoking.

It's a small study (only 32 people), but still, the results are startling and deserve follow-up with further research. If the trend continues, it looks like the Attorney General's office needs to change the way they approach policy on cigarette warnings.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Heath Ledger Nominated for Golden Globe

Batman: The Dark Knight, which made huge sales at the box office, is once again making huge sales in DVD. And today, Heath Ledger has been nominated for a posthumous Golden Globe award for his portrayal of the Joker.

Ledger gave a tremendous performance as Joker. It was externally loud and outward, but at the same time, he portrayed a character with an intense, seething inner life. He showed a man whose psyche was rotting away to such a degree that he had lost all sense of right/wrong and societal norms. Yes, it was a comic book character, but you bought how this being could have been born out of a real-life scenario.

Now, I do have to admit, there is extra value added because it's the last great role Heath Ledger will ever put down on screen. The finality of it all is enticing. I think he might have one more film left in post-production? But for the most part, Ledger's work is over, and that casts a haunting resonance this piece. How do we separate that from evaluating the work?

I don't think we can. And maybe it shouldn't matter.

As I said when he died and people were flocking to see the film in the theaters, there's a sense of public grieving that comes from appreciating this role. And I'm a huge fan of public grieving. It's cathartic and healing and doesn't happen often enough. There's no doubt it's a quality performance, and I don't see anything wrong with Ledger getting every possible recognition for his performance as Joker, even if part of the reason is the fact of his death.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dead People Get Sexy—Wait, isn't that necrophilia?

This week, MSNBC tells us about a new trend, plastic surgery after death.

For years, I operated under the belief that we were all making ourselves beautiful in order to be more attractive to the opposite sex so that we might project the impression that we could be strong, healthy breeding partners. (I realize I'm making grand, sweeping generalizations here.) What does it say that some of us feel the need to project our sexuality and attractiveness of our deceased physical form?

Some of the procedures specifically mentioned in the piece are Botox to minimize wrinkles, and breast augmentations.

I can't get past the idea that this is taking wanting to look good to an absurd degree. I hate to sound like a hypocrite. After all, I do advocate for everyone having the death they find ideal ... but worrying about fewer wrinkles and perky breasts post-mortem seems ridiculous.

Understand belief in afterlife, sad to see preoccupation with physical afterlife. Plus, this isn't just thinking about afterlife, this trend seem based on the assumption that consciousness of your physical form will continue to some degree after death.

But what do you think?

The Mom and Me Journals dot Net

The Mom and Me Journals dot Net is a blog dedicated to one woman's adventures as a companion to her mother, who happens to have dementia and lung cancer.

The blog is honest and informative about the dying process—not to mention about the mother-daughter relationship. It's a site we all could learn from.

The author's mother just passed away, and the most recent entry is about the death.

I highly recommend the site, and the post.

Fantastic Death

I'm reading a new novel by Jonathan Carroll called The Ghost in Love that deals with the aftermath of a man not dying when he should, in a fantastical way. A representative of the angel of death is left in limbo, hanging out on Earth, waiting for him to die. In the meantime, this ghost in limbo falls in love with the man's ex-girlfriend, hence the title of the book. I've just started the novel, but so far, it is full of humor and the most beautiful, non-saccharine sentimentality.

Here's an excerpt that I particularly like:
"She fell in love easily but walked away just as easily from a relationship when it went bad. Some men—and there had been many of them—thought this showed she was coldhearted, but they were wrong. German Landis simply didn't understand people who moped. Life was too interesting to choose suffering. Although she got a big kick out of him, she thought her brother Guy, was goofy for spending his life writing songs only about things that either stank or sucked. In response, he drew a pictue of what her gravestone would look like if he designed it: a big yellow smiley face on it and the words I LIKE BEING DEAD!
Little did either of them know that she would like it when her time came to die, years later. German Landis would move into death as she'd moved into new schoos, relationships, or phases of her life: full speed ahead, hopes ahoy, heart filled like a sail with reasonalbe optimism and belief that the gods were fundamentally benevolent, no mater where she was."

I love the notion that Carroll is presenting here that personality and attitude in life can carry over in to the way a person moves into death. It makes for a fun, life-affirming—and death-affirming for that matter—narrative.

Alan Cheuse gave a poignant review of this novel, and nobel winner Jose Saramago's novel Death with Interruptions, which has recently been tranlated into English. That book is also on my list or to-reads.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Advanced Dog Obedience Graduation

Just to lighten the mood a bit, I thought I'd share a couple of photos from doggy obedience class. My border terrier, Banner, had graduation from advanced obedience last night. The big finale was getting all of the dogs lined up in a row, very close together, all in down stays. Much easier said than done :) If you don't know what a border terrier is, he's the small, scruffy, black and brown one.

"Time is very compressed during an execution."

Part three of KUOW's series on the state of execution examines the mechanics of execution.

Fair warning, this piece is highly informative but not always easy to listen to due to its graphic nature.

In Washington state, there are two options: hanging and lethal injection. Fascinatingly, reporter Patricia Murphy draws out some of the ethical issues involved.

The state divides the tasks into as many parts as possible so no one worker feels responsible for the execution. Also, in the case of lethal injection, three shots are given: The second is a paralytic; this makes the execution aesthetically peaceful for those watching, but from blood work done in autopsy, there is evidence that those executed feel pain even though they cannot move or communicate it in any way.

Like I said, not an easy listen, but full of good information if you're up for it.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Another Reason to Hate Wal-Mart

A Reuters story on the aftermath of the Black Friday, in-store death.

A Wal-Mart statement had this to say:

"Tomorrow morning we will release our sales numbers for the month of November," the statement said. "This event is overshadowed by the tragic death of Jdimytai Damour at our Valley Stream, New York store on Nov. 28."

Too bad the death is overshadowing the release of their November sales figures. Nice of them to put things in perspective.

A Sacrifice to the American Religion of Shopping

Poet Andrei Codrescu offered this commentary on NPR's All Things Considered last night about the death of a Wal-Mart employee who was stampeded by a crowd of shoppers, anxious to get into the store for super savings on Black Friday.

I'm a pretty analytical girl ... which makes me so glad for people like Codrescu, who have poetic minds. Codrescu calls the death a sacrifice to the American religion of shopping.

"And so we went shopping! We so went shopping, in rumbling herdlike elephant masses, we killed a guy who didn't get out of the way fast enough. It's a tragic incident, but by no means meaningless. Shopping is a religion, and some religions demand sacrifices.

The Wal-Mart employee died for us on Black Friday, but have we stopped to think what his sacrifice means? Not at all: We're stampeding right on through to the other side of Christmas. We aren't just shopping: We are saving America."

I'm sure a lot of the more thoughtful of us already have done this, but maybe we should all stop for a minute and think about what his death means.

Arbitrary Nature of Death Penalty

Part two of KUOW's series on the death penalty in Washington state examines the legal complications of Washington's "volunteer" death penalty—meaning instead of certain crimes requiring mandatory pursuit of death penalty, it is up to the discretion of each individual elected prosecutor in the county in which a crime was committed.

With 39 counties in the state and 39 individual county prosecutors, the situation leads to all sorts of comparisons and questions about the arbitrary nature of the death penalty. For example, why is Darold Stenson likely to be executed while Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, will serve life in prison. (One explanation: Ridgeway bargained for life by giving information about the location of the bodies of his victims who had not yet been found.)

If yesterday's piece was noteworthy for its compassion, today's piece is an equally adept look at the fallability of a system that must necessarily be administered by a collection of individual people.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

U.S. Life Expectancy—Not as Good as it Should Be

From The Today Show ... the U.S. lags behind 27 other developed nations in terms of life expectancy, according to the annual report from the United Health Foundation. Dr. Nancy Snyderman credits it to obesity, smoking, and lack of health insurance.

According to the same study, we spend more money on health care than most of the nations that outrank us in terms of life expectancy. So where's the disconnect?

One popular theory, and one Dr. Snyderman hints at in the piece, is that America spends a lot of money on heroic measures, using expensive new equipment and experimental procedures, more often than just focusing on preventive medicine.

Another theory is that we spend too much on the last years of life, putting too many health-care dollars into prolonging life by a few months or years with dramatic, expensive effort, rather than keeping ourselves healthier while younger.

You can go here to see the original study results and a state-by-state ranking.

The State of Execution

The first part in KUOW's special series on execution in Washington state is finally up on their website today.

Two things: 1) I guess they postponed the series until December 3rd from the original air date of December 1st because of the stay of execution. I did not hear this postponement advertised, if it was. 2) Even though they advertised it as being part of Morning Edition, it is actually produced by the local NPR affiliate KUOW. Sorry for any confusion I caused by passing on their misleading information.

Logistical snafus aside, it's a good piece on the stress families of victims go through when a death penalty case comes up in the courts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Death with Dignity—Not a Trend

I must apologize for being a couple of weeks late catching this editorial. ...

It's from The Oregonian, and it argues that Washington State's recently passed Death with Dignity Act is not simply another fluke, like Oregon's, but the beginning of a larger national trend.

The author, Don Colburn, points out that the Death with Dignity Act captured 59% of the vote and won 33 of 39 counties in Washington. That means, it didn't fall into the typical, Seattle and other big cities vs. eastern Washington and other more rural areas—a fairly typical liberal/conservative divide in this state. The initiative also outdid our Democratic governor, who won reelection. And it outdid Obama, who won the state.

So yes, Washington state can be fairly progressive and fairly liberal, but Colburn shows us that it's not just progressive liberals supporting Death with Dignity. Compassion and Choices has mentioned many times their desire to spread this work to other parts of the country. We just have to keep pushing the dialogue forward.

Execution in Washington State Cancelled

Washington's corrections department has cancelled the scheduled execution of Darold Stenson, and a new date will not be scheduled for at least 90 days.

Patricia Murphy from KUOW, Seattle's local NPR affiliate, gives a really understandable, comprehensive analysis of what happened in the case in an audio clip at this link. The clip is from a week ago so does not go into all of the twists and turns, but it will fill you in more fully than any newspaper story I've read on this issue so far.