Robert Mitton – Lost in the ‘Right to Die’ Debate

by Diane Dimond on November 17, 2014

Terminally Ill and Planning His Own Death

Terminally Ill and Planning His Own Death

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.

Bovine Valves Last Only 15 Year at Maximum

Bovine Valves Last Only 15 Year at Maximum

“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.”

Your Life, Your Decision When it Should End?

Your Life, Your Decision When it Should End?

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.

Helium Death Demo With Dummy

Helium Death Demo With Dummy

“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.”

Assisted Suicide - AntiDemonstration

Potential For Elder Abuse?

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.



Diane Dimond November 17, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Twitter Pal SunriseSunset7 writes:

“@DiDimond Yes, in this case he has a right,but to claim this right you have to be of sound mind,This should be in all right to die cases.”

Diane Dimond November 17, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Facebook Friend Lance Lambert writes:

“You know, what I think doesn’t matter. I wish Robert a gentle passing.”

Diane Dimond November 17, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Twitter Pal meganbagen writes:

” @DiDimond wow. I agree we should all have the choice to end our own suffering.”

Diane Dimond November 17, 2014 at 9:48 pm

Twitter Pal ThBernieScolaro writes:

“@DiDimond not everyone is emotionally stable making decisions in this kind of situation.”

Diane Dimond November 17, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Facebook Friend Patti Petow writes:

” No matter when, no matter how and no matter why, I have the same wishes for Robert and anyone else in this position. They get to call the shots. Not the government.”

Diane Dimond November 17, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Facebook Friend Robert B. Reno writes:

“As a paramedic I have seen plenty of people who have terminal illnesses. There is no glory in needless suffering. People should spend their last hours in peace and dignity not in pain. We don’t let our pets suffer why do we force people to?”

Diane Dimond November 17, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Facebook Friend Rita Dicarlo writes:

“What an intense story. I am sad that this gentleman is alone too. But I am on his side.”

jeff liddell November 19, 2014 at 4:38 pm

The hypocrisies of so many. Life is too precious for one to take their own lives, life is individual and if one wants to die on their own terms and in a less painful manner, it is a personal choice and it has merit if for no other reason. Our own Federal government will not outlaw items known to cause terminal illness, tobacco and alcohol are the two that come to mind. Our health system makes it almost impossible to afford treatment for terminal illnesses for the average person, without saddling your family with medical bills for years to come, and nobody should ever feel the urge to put a gun to their own head and pull the trigger. Euthanasia should be a discussion between family and it should be legal if that is the decision reached.

Diane Dimond November 22, 2014 at 8:37 pm

Twitter Pal ShrayMilan writes:

“@DiDimond if that’s suicide- then the directive orders of a patient request of DNR is suicidal! I think you have whatever right N Ur life.”

Diane Dimond November 22, 2014 at 8:39 pm

Twitter Pal SunriseSunset7 writes:

“@DiDimond Remember, God gave us the ability to choose and to have faith and believe in him … As as long as he is competent to make this BIG decision!”

Diane Dimond November 22, 2014 at 8:40 pm

Twitter Pal StewartCherie writes:

“@DiDimond Brittany Maynard’s videos really stuck a cord#Righttodie I’m not anyone’s judge. Every case is so different. How could one law work?”

Diane Dimond November 22, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Twitter Pal DianeAx writes:

“@DiDimond I don’t know if it’s suicide but it’s morally reprehensible.”

Diane Dimond November 22, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Twitter Pal meganbagen writes:

“@DiDimond wow. I agree we should all have the choice to end our own suffering.”

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