Originally published in the Star Tribune – December 21, 2016
‘I’d rather be dead than disabled.”
I remember feeling that way several months before I became severely disabled. In 1980, I had taken a group of teenage girls to see a young quadriplegic named Joni Eareckson Tada, who painted beautifully by holding a paintbrush in her mouth. Though inspired by her talent, I remember telling the girls, “I could never live like that.”
A few months later my neck was broken in a car accident, and I became a quadriplegic, paralyzed below my shoulders. I would spend the next year and a half in various hospitals and rehabilitation centers, dealing with medical problems and learning to live with a spinal cord injury.
Reality hit after four months when the hospital let me go home for a few days. I saw the piano and realized I’d never play it again. The kitchen reminded me I could no longer fry an egg for myself. Simple tasks like taking a shower were now major productions requiring lots of time and lots of help. My independent days were over.
I fell into a depression. I’d lie in bed crying, becoming more frustrated when I couldn’t wipe my tears and nose. At times I really thought my life was over, that I was a burden. I definitely felt I’d rather be dead than disabled.
But, thank God, those around me provided me with what I really needed — good medical care, prayers and loving support. Other quadriplegics assured me that life can go on and renewed my hope. I slowly came out of this depression, and I began to see that my life was far from over.
Fast-forward 36 years. Although my life has not been easy and I occasionally deal with serious medical conditions, I can honestly say I’m grateful to be alive.
But I might not be if assisted suicide had been legal in Minnesota at the time of my accident. If it had been, I might have given in to my depression and the false belief that the value of my life had diminished. I might have chosen to end my life, depriving myself and my loved ones of the opportunities to learn and grow and enjoy living.
What’s more, if assisted suicide had been legal, I might not have received the incredible personal care and medical attention I did, even after I decided I wanted to live. Disabled people already face discrimination in health care, from limited accessibility to disparities in treatment and diagnosis. Since assisted suicide is cheaper than ongoing care in most cases, making it a viable option would likely increase these disparities for “at-risk” people, including the disabled.
I understand how caring people might think those with serious disabilities would be better oﬀ dead because I once thought the same about myself. We often fear the unknown and don’t want to deal with it.
But legalizing assisted suicide is not the answer. It limits real choices for the disabled and other vulnerable people by disincentivizing advances in the quality and accessibility of health care.
When people see death as their only option, we need to help them. If healthy, able-bodied people are suicidal, we provide support. We don’t let them jump oﬀ that bridge if we can help it, and we certainly don’t push them oﬀ.
We need to show the same compassion to those with physical challenges who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. In addition to good psychological and spiritual support, we should provide suﬃcient medical care, including rehabilitation and pain management.
Thankfully, that’s my story. I’m so grateful for family and friends who’ve always supported me; personal care attendants who’ve become my hands; medical professionals who’ve helped me live as a quadriplegic; my insurance company and others who’ve aided with bills, and the Spinal Cord Society, whose quest for a cure brings hope to many.
I believe life is to be chosen over what some would call “death with dignity.” There is nothing dignified about deciding someone’s life is not worth living. If a patient or someone with a disability has a need, let’s compassionately address it. Let’s eliminate the problem, not the person.
Jean Swenson obtained a master’s degree in counseling psychology after her accident, and she actively supports spinal cord research through the Spinal Cord Society. She is part of the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, a newly formed group opposing assisted suicide in Minnesota.