Catherine's Choice: To Plan A Death With Dignity NPR Health Correspondent Dick Knox tells of the story of his friend and neighbor, Catherine Royce, who died recently — by choice. Catherine suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, and as she became sicker, she decided to plan a deliberate death. It wasn't easy — some around her felt it was wrong. But Catherine wanted to die on her own terms.
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Catherine's Choice: To Plan A Death With Dignity

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Catherine's Choice: To Plan A Death With Dignity

Catherine's Choice: To Plan A Death With Dignity

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Next, we have a follow-up on a woman named Catherine Royce. She contributed an essay in 2006 for our series This I Believe. She had been a dancer and a deputy arts commissioner for the City of Boston. Then in 2003, Catherine Royce was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. Here's NPR's Richard Knox with the rest of her story.

RICHARD KNOX: My friend and neighbor Catherine Royce died recently, by choice. Choice was important to Catherine, as she said two and a half years ago in her essay for NPR.

Ms. CATHERINE ROYCE (Former Deputy Arts Commissioner, Boston): I believe that I always have a choice. No matter what I'm doing, no matter what is happening to me, I always have a choice.

KNOX: There's a deep irony here. Catherine certainly didn't choose to get ALS. And she had no choice as she lost her ability to walk, to feed herself, to talk above a whisper and lately, to breathe without sucking on an oxygen tube every 15 seconds or so. As the losses mounted, Catherine considered again and again whether to choose life. As she said in 2006…

Ms. ROYCE: Every day, I choose not only how I will live, but if I will live. I have no particular religious mandate that forbids contemplating a shorter life, an action that would deny this disease its ultimate expression.

KNOX: But until this spring, Catherine kept finding reasons to live. As she put it, she opened herself to other possibilities.

Ms. ROYCE: I can choose to see ALS as nothing more than a death sentence, or I can choose to see it as an invitation, an opportunity to learn who I truly am.

KNOX: She poured out those insights in a series of essays that she got to see published a few months ago, in a book she called "Wherever I Am, I'm Fine." But as breathing got more difficult, Catherine became anxious and frightened of dying - that is, until an event that happened a couple of months ago. A nurse was filling the vaporizer on Catherine's oxygen machine. Something went wrong. The machine shut down. Soon, three nurses were in the room, frantically trying to restart it.

They couldn't hear Catherine's feeble voice. She tried to tell them she was running out of breath, that they should hook up the spare machine. She was insane with fear, she said later, and knew the game was up. Then she experienced something others have described at the threshold of death: The scene behind my closed eyes was filled with a brilliant white corridor featuring a right-hand turn at the end, she wrote in her blog. Feeling curious and no longer afraid, I started to walk down the corridor - no wheelchairs here.

At that point, I heard one of the nurses say, there it goes. The machine started up again. Catherine was pulled back to life. After that, she wasn't afraid anymore. She began planning her death, a deliberate one, not one that would occur because a machine suddenly broke down. It wasn't easy to arrange. Some around her felt strongly it was wrong, and told her so. A lawyer for the nursing home was consulted.

He said in this case, it would not be euthanasia, which is illegal in Massachusetts, because no one would be injecting a drug to cause her death. Instead, the oxygen would be gradually turned down, while a morphine drip would keep Catherine comfortable and calm. She would simply be putting aside the technology that kept her tethered to life. Catherine chose the time. It was when her daughter, Galen, could come home from England, where she's studying medicine. On the appointed morning, her loved ones gathered.

Catherine was aware and engaged during the two-hour process. Eventually, she dozed off. And here, let me quote again from her last essay: What can I tell you about the bright light? It really is there. I saw it. I can in no way guarantee that you will see one, too, or that I will see one again. But I hope we're all so blessed.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Richard Knox, remembering his friend Catherine Royce. She died March 30th, at the age of 60. You can listen to her essay, This I Believe, at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION.

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