La Jollan and 'right-to-die' champion shares movement history

It was in the early 1980s when long-time San Diegan and now-resident of Vi retirement community at La Jolla Village, Faye Girsh, was asked to help a 28-year-old quadriplegic woman die. “She wanted to die by stopping to eat and drink, which was illegal at the time. I evaluated her and found she was a smart, confident lady, not depressed. She just wanted to die.”

As a clinical and forensic psychologist, Girsh assisted the woman at the court trial, which she lost. But that sparked a lifetime of involvement in the “Right-to-Die” movement. In 1986, Girsh organized a Right-to-Die conference, which was sponsored by UC San Diego Medical School, where she met Derek Humphrey, then-president and founder of the Hemlock Society. Girsh went on to start the San Diego chapter of the Hemlock society, over which she still presides.

Girsh, who before beginning her path in the Right-to-Die movement was a civil rights activist, said her motivation always was the “injustice” behind denying a person the right to decide how they want to die. “Many people do it themselves, use violent methods (to end their lives) because their suffering is so great, and that just seems to me to be horribly unjust,” she explained.

By the time she started the Hemlock Society of San Diego, it was legal in California to refuse all treatments other than food and water. A person could indicate in a living will, which treatments and when to refuse them, and appoint a representative to speak for them in case they couldn’t do it for themselves.

“But that was not enough,” Girsh said. In 1987, she started the long process than ended in 2015 when the California legislature approved the End of Life Option Act that allows a terminally-ill patient to request the drugs necessary to grant them a peaceful and painless death. “We got the initiative on the ballot in 1992, but we were outspent by the Catholic Church,” she explained. The Catholic Church, among other groups, maintains it amounts to assisted suicide and goes against the will of God.

But the approved legislation, Girsh said, is still not enough. “If you don’t have a terminal disease but you’re suffering from some horrible disease, and if you’re not mentally competent, these laws are useless,” she continued, adding that her worst fear is losing her mental faculties. “If I knew I had dementia, what would happen is, it would get very bad, I would be put in the memory unit, and then my life could go on and on, and I might not have a clue who I am, where I am or who my loved ones are. If I knew that was going to happen, I would try to get the medication from some illegal means and take it.”

From 1996 to 2002 Girsh was president of the Hemlock Society USA, and 2002-2004 senior vice president of End-of-Life-Choices (Hemlock’s temporary name). During that time, she said, she resided in Denver, Colorado where the Society is based, to manage its national operations.

At age 83, Girsh said she has survived two husbands and thought a great deal about her own death. “When I got into the movement, I was young, and now I’m old, so it becomes personal. I live in a retirement community where many people die very bad deaths,” she explained.

“It’s essential to me to know that I can end it when I want, in a gentle, peaceful way, and maybe I would want to have a party with my friends to say goodbye. I think hospice is a wonderful institution, and if I had hospice care and I wasn’t suffering too much, I would want to live until the very end, if I was enjoying life. But if I was going through suffering and indignity, I would like to end it with my kids and maybe grandkids (near), in my own apartment,” she elaborated.

A native of Philadelphia, Girsh said she moved to San Diego in 1978 after “three winters in Chicago.” In 2003, she was awarded Hemlock’s Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2016, the Marilyn Sequin Award from the World Federation of Right-to-Die Societies.

Girsh recommends to people of all ages that they write their living will and appoint someone to speak for them in case of an accident or sudden illness. The detail of the instructions, she added, should be substantial.

“Suppose I got hit by a truck this afternoon. I can’t speak or breathe or feed myself. But the chances are that I might recover, so in the meantime, I would want to be fed artificially and put on breathing machine, and maybe on dialysis even. But then, if in a couple months, if I was still needing these things, I would want to be re-examined, and if there was no chance of recovery, I would want to be taken off these things,” she concluded.

 

Want to know more about the Right-to-Die movement? Visit hemlocksocietysandiego.org

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