While many are debating whether more states should pass “Right to Die” laws Robert Mitton is methodically planning his own death. Death on his terms, as he slips through the cracks of the current conversation about who qualifies for help in ending a life of unbearable pain.
Mitton, 59, has suffered from acute heart disease most of his life, the result of a near fatal childhood bout with rheumatic fever. Fifteen years ago, on November 17, 1999, Robert finally agreed to allow surgeons to swap out his damaged aortic heart valve with a bovine replacement. He was told the cow valve had a shelf life of ten to 15 years. Next week marks the expiration date for the lifesaving foreign body that lives in his chest.
“It’s in a holding condition now,” Mitton told me. But he knows he’s getting sicker and he’s worried about his increasing heart gradient measurement.
“Zero is perfect, 30 is a problem and 50 is like you’re ready for surgery,” he said. Robert’s heart gradient is now at 55 but he insists he cannot go through another open heart surgery. He just can’t.
“I don’t want to get ripped open again,” he said. “Recovery was brutal. It was a major ordeal and there were just complications after complications.”
Some doctors might conclude Mitton is not suffering from a terminal illness, that his own anti-surgery choice is what plagues him. Robert believes he has the right to make his own health care choices. He says that last March his cardiologist gave him paperwork allowing him access to hospice and other end-of-life medical attention because he is terminally ill.
Only five states have authorized the act of assisting critically ill people as they end their lives. Oregon, Washington State and Vermont passed laws to that effect. Judges in New Mexico and Montana have issued rulings upholding the idea many call, “assisted suicide.”
Robert lives in Colorado, a state that is currently considering passing a so-called “Death with Dignity” law. Robert bristles at the labels given to his situation.
“Assisted suicide is such a bad phrase,” he told me. He insists the word suicide should not be used at all.
“The term(s) self-determination or self-deliverance make a much better point,” he said. As Robert sees it many people die with dignity while few take the step he has been planning for – to “self-deliver” from what he knows will be unbearable suffering.
“When I start swelling up and drowning in my own blood then I’ll pull the switch,” he said with firm conviction in his voice.
When I asked about his exit strategy Robert told me he’s already bought a canister of helium. Why helium, I wondered.
“Because it’s an inert gas where it won’t cause you any pain or crazy sensation,” he explained. “It’s like breathing air but not getting any oxygen. Within a couple of minutes you slip into a coma and you die right away. It’s a real painless way of going.”
He will have to put a plastic bag over his head to insure he inhales only helium. As a single man he will likely die alone.
Robert has only one slight hope for life. It’s a new and experimental valve replacement surgery but he couldn’t get an evaluation appointment at the Colorado University Medical Center until December 8th, close to a month after his bovine valve will have expired.
Look, we are all going to die. Most don’t openly talk about it but Robert says we should. He keeps the conversation going via a blog with the sub-title, “2014 is My Last Year Here.”
What keeps him going in the face of imminent death?
Robert smiles at the question. He once got invaluable advice from a man stricken with near total blindness. “He told me, ‘Don’t waste the suffering,’ and I’ve never forgotten that.”
That’s why Robert speaks out about the fragility of life and the importance of being in control when it’s time to let go of a life not worth living.
“It’s as much a right as all the other rights we have….food, clean water, shelter,” he told me. “Dignity and understanding must be given to all people….even the already dying.”
It’s not really about the laws we pass. It’s about the understanding we extend to others, especially those on the cusp of death.