The TV dramatization of Terri Schiavo’s death focused world attention on who pulls the plug and when. Terri left no written instructions about what she would want done if she were ever in this kind of situation. There were only the whispered, intimate conversations that husbands and wives have. Ultimately, it was her husband who spoke up for her, in a daily drama that was played worldwide.
There have been several movies out recently dealing with end-of-life issues. Unlike Terri, however, these are about people who chose their own time to die. The Academy Award-winning film “This Sea Inside” is one. Based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro, this is a terrific movie.
Ramon Sampedro, at age 18, fractured his neck in a diving accident, leaving him unable to move anything below his neck. Ramon lay virtually motionless and bedridden for 30 years. During this time, he wrote two books, one of which, Letters from Hell, inspired this movie. He also learned how to fly: he discovered how to escape his physical limitations by imagining that he could soar through the countryside. It lifted his spirit. He fell in love, and he wrote beautiful poetry. But, after 30 years, believed he’d learned enough and wanted to end his life. Ramon needed somebody to help make the lethal cyanide cocktail and leave it at his bedside, so that all he had to do was turn his neck and suck it up through a straw. The Sampedro case, and assisted suicide, became a national debate in Catholic Spain.
Javier Bardem, the magnificent actor who played Ramon, was interviewed and asked what it was like to play this role. Bardem said, “It’s hard lying still for 5 or 6 hours and I got panicky. But I also learned some important things about myself, like how to control my anxiety, still my movements and tame my impatience. I also learned some important things about Ramon, to identify with what a beautiful thing it might be to be able to move beyond my body and fly.”
Knowing Ramon as he did, Javier was asked whether he could have assisted in Ramon’s death. Bardem took a stand and said, “I am not somebody to tell a person like Ramon Sampedro how he should feel, or what he should do with his life. If you truly love a person and you feel his or her wish comes from a very conscious awareness of their situation; that it’s a mature response to their situation well, I guess I would do it. It’s his life, it’s not my life.”
We need to be discussing end-of-life policy in this country too. Oregon has a “Death With Dignity Act” which has twice been approved in statewide voter referendums. It is the only statute in the United States that allows doctors to write lethal prescriptions for terminally ill patients who want to control the time and place of their death. For patients to qualify, they have to be fully conscious and able to administer their own overdose. Even in Oregon, Ramon Sampedro could not have chosen of the time of his death.
For me, I want to say clearly that if the quality of my life no longer brings me joy, I’d like to decide when I’ve had enough.