“Death with dignity” is such a catch-phrase right now in the media. But for those of us who suffer in our dark thoughts every day, we are living “life with dignity.” Each day we live and make it through is a success. —Anonymous*
No, this is not yet another philosophical discourse arguing against physician-assisted suicide. Along with my colleagues—Drs Mark Komrad, Annette (Anne) Hanson, and Cynthia Geppert—I have covered that territory elsewhere.1-4 This piece is about life with dignity—even amidst its raw and ravaging agonies. Mainly, this piece is about an Englishwoman, Hilary Lister, who recently died at the age of 46, after a long voyage of pain, endurance, and courage.
As related in by Daniel Slotnik5 in The New York Times:
Ms. Lister was relegated to her couch for years by a degenerative disease that rendered her immobile from the neck down and left her in near-constant pain. At one point the agony and tedium became too much to bear, and she resolved to end her life. “I had been a very active person as a child,” she told The Sunday Telegraph of London in 2008. “I did sport. I played the clarinet. I went to Oxford University and studied biochemistry, and yet at that point I not only couldn’t do anything, but I was also in terrible pain . . . I just couldn’t see the point in continuing, really.” Then a friend persuaded Ms. Lister to come sailing, and she found a reason to live.5
Over the years, Ms Lister became “an adept sailor” who could navigate sailboats using mechanisms similar to those that control electric wheelchairs, “. . . sipping on and puffing into straws connected to electronic mechanisms that controlled the vessels.” Most remarkably, in 2005, Ms Lister became the first quadriplegic person to sail alone across the English Channel, and later, to circumnavigate Britain entirely on her own. Throughout her many years sailing, she endured almost unimaginable physical challenges:
Her body struggled with thermoregulation . . . She was unable to go to the bathroom on a boat, which meant she could spend hours without relief. And she still experienced pain, which she said ranged from the sensation of sandpaper rasping her joints to that of knives piercing her.”5
There were even times, while sailing, when she was unable to breathe, and required resuscitation by her support crew! And yet, Ms Lister did what the English so famously and traditionally do: she carried on. Moreover, she described how sailing renewed her sense of pleasure in life, saying, “It was as if I was free.”
Hilary Lister died in hospital with her husband Clifford at her side.
1. Pies RW, Hanson AH. Twelve Myths About Physician Assisted Suicide and Medical Aid In Dying. MD Magazine. July 7, 2018. https://www.mdmag.com/medical-news/twelve-myths-concerning-medical-aid-in-dying-or-physicianassisted-suicide. Accessed September 11,2018.
2. Geppert CMA, Pies RW. Two Misleading Myths Regarding “Medical Aid in Dying.” Psychiatric Times. August 1, 2018. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/two-misleading-myths-regarding-medical-aid-dying. Accessed September 11, 2018.
3. Komrad MS. A Psychiatrist Visits Belgium: The Epicenter of Psychiatric Euthanasia. Psychiatric Times. June 21, 2018. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/couch-crisis/psychiatrist-visits-belgium-epicenter-psychiatric-euthanasia. Accessed September 11, 2018.
4. Pies RW. When Is Self-Killing Not Suicide? Psychiatric News. July 19, 2018. https://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.pn.2018.7b29. Accessed September 11, 2018.
5. Slotnik DE. Hilary Lister, a Quadriplegic Who Sailed Solo, Dies at 46. The New York Times. August 22, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/obituaries/hilary-lister-dead.html. Accessed September 11, 2018.
6. Chan I. My patients are dying. But it’s their right to keep going. The Washington Post. August 24, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/my-patients-are-dying-but-its-their-right-to-keep-fighting/2018/08/24/487c71ba-809a-11e8-b660-4d0f9f0351f1_story.html?utm_term=.423ce262bd0b. Accessed September 11, 2018.
7. Thomas D. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night. Accessed September 11, 2018.