Baltimore Ravens' O.J. Brigance joins emotional death with dignity debate with testimony about how his most significant feat came after he grieved his degenerative condition and decided to live.
Despite widespread support in the General Assembly, the "Death with Dignity" bill, which would permit a doctor to prescribe life-ending drugs to certain terminally ill patients, was not voted upon in its recent legislative session. Instead, it was remanded to "summer study." There are some who believe that summer study is where bills go to die. In the case of "Death with Dignity," however, I believe that respectful consideration of the suggestions of thoughtful but uncommitted legislators will produce even more robust support for the bill.
I support Death with Dignity and so testified before committees in the House and the Senate. The bill reflects sound and humane public policy. My support was strengthened by several visits to my friend and former colleague, Dick Israel, who is stricken with advanced Parkinson's disease and lies, in a useless body, in a hospice bed in an Annapolis health care center.
The Dick Israel with whom I worked in the attorney general's office years ago served for nearly 25 years in that office, most of it as one of the principal counsel to the General Assembly. Dick was a gem, at home with both the events of the day and in the dusty archives where he was able to hear the silent rhythms of the law. He wrote precisely and spoke with wit. His stentorian tones were inflected by an accent acquired during his years of study at Oxford. Dick was emphatically an Anglophile and a bit of an antiquarian. He might have been found at tea in Downton Abbey. I used to tell Dick he was born into the wrong century. This most inner-directed of men carried a pocket watch in his vest pocket, wore a fedora in fall and winter and a straw boater when, regardless of the weather, he decided it was spring.
When he left the attorney general's office, Dick was elected to the City Council of Annapolis, his home for 40 years. Until his disease cut him down, he served with distinction as Ward One's alderman. His depth of knowledge about municipal law and the legislative process made him an especially effective chairman of the council's finance committee. And he thoroughly enjoyed those Saturday morning sessions at a West Street coffee house to which all voters, and every viewpoint, were welcome.
I have visited him several times in recent weeks. He is confined to that hospice bed. He has only limited control of his hands, fingers and facial muscles. His efforts to speak are largely guttural sounds. He communicates by pointing an unsteady finger at letters on a large chart that laboriously spell out his thoughts.
Dick's mind — in the few hours each afternoon when his medications allow him to be alert — is as clear and precise as ever. And Dick wants to die.
As he put it in the testimony he sent to the legislature, his mind has become "the prisoner of the failing body. As the body continues to fail to respond to the mind, life loses its meaning, purpose and hope."
As introduced in the recent legislative session, the life-ending protocol within the Death with Dignity bill — modeled on a well-regarded Oregon law that has been in effect for nearly 20 years — is stringently circumscribed. The patient's attending physician and a consulting physician must certify that the patient is likely to die within six months and is mentally competent; the patient's requests to terminate life, one of which must be in writing, must persist during a waiting period of several weeks; and the patient must be able to self-administer the lethal drug. There are additional provisions designed to protect against precipitous use or manipulation of the patient.
Dick knows that he is unlikely to live to see the passage of Death with Dignity. But he supports the effort because he knows that there are others with terminal illnesses whose minds are clear but who, like Dick, are imprisoned in useless, often pained bodies, people who exist — but do not live — and who should be given the opportunity to choose, rationally, to end an intolerable existence.