Let Me Kill Myself

Before he dies of Lou Gehrig's disease, Phil Snaith wants to accomplish one final goal: force the state to allow assisted suicides

After stints with two small law firms, Snaith began his own one-man legal operation handling divorces, collections, bankruptcies, and personal injury cases. The overhead was low, and his billings were enough to keep the refrigerator and liquor cabinet stocked and to leave plenty of time for sailing. He's never been awash in ambition, preferring instead to find a comfy middle ground between income and free time. "You can never get enough of either, and you sure aren't going to find the right mix working for someone else," he says.

The laid-back demeanor disappears when Snaith gets to the courtroom. "He's a tough fighter," observes Lukasievich. "And he is extremely well prepared. If there is anything bad I could say about him, it's that he picks out the finest points and beats the other side to death with them." Such qualities come in handy. In fact Lukasievich recruited his pal to help settle one especially stubborn case. "I wanted them to feel the wrath of Snaith," he says.

Coleman: Assisted suicide equals discrimination
Skot Olsen
Coleman: Assisted suicide equals discrimination
Little things, like being mobile, mean a lot to Snaith
Little things, like being mobile, mean a lot to Snaith

The "present unpleasantness," as Snaith refers to ALS, came to light last September. Snaith was sitting in his living room, in his easy chair, with his puppy Sir Winston at his right. His girlfriend Pennie was on the couch nearby. It was hot inside Snaith's place, and he had no shirt on. Pennie noticed something.

"She said, 'You've got a tic on your arm,'" he recalls. Always ready with a retort, he replied, "'Do you spell that with a k?' She said, 'No, goddammit, I don't.'"

Wildermuth is a critical-care nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach. She didn't know what Snaith's twitching meant, but she sensed it was bad news. "I knew there was some kind of major neurological problem," she says. "And any neurological problem is not good."

ALS is diagnosed by excluding other possibilities. Doctors at the V.A. hospital in Miami tested him for heavy-metal toxicity, vitamin deficiencies, chemical toxins, and neurological disorders. They performed an EMG and two MRIs. When the last of the tests came back negative in December, they concluded what Snaith already suspected.

The tremors started in his arms and legs, from the knees up. By April he was losing strength in his hands; he had to use both of them to operate a cigarette lighter. He couldn't button a dress shirt or knot a tie. He'd been wearing calf-length socks for 30 years but could no longer pull them up. He didn't have the strength or agility to cut his fingernails. Looking back on it now, Snaith thinks the symptoms started a year earlier, with chronic fatigue.

When a high-school buddy came for a visit one weekend, Snaith discovered he couldn't play the guitar or banjo anymore; he could still pick with his right hand, but he was too weak to fret the chords with his left.

By May, cooking and eating had become such a chore that he'd lost 12 pounds. Cutting anything was difficult because his hands would cramp when he gripped a knife. His back was weak, and standing for any period of time became a challenge. Carrying anything heavier than a case of booze was out of the question. The stairs in his place became a problem, and he began to talk about moving in with Wildermuth.

Almost every day there was something new to deal with: "It is sort of like being a leper and every once in a while just pitching another body part over the fence."

Once in a while, Snaith says he'll get "blubbery" about his fate and "howl at the moon" with Sir Winston. On rare occasions he'll cry in front of a guest. The story that usually brings tears has to do with the death of Scooter, his Boston terrier, who had cataracts, cancer, and a few other ailments. "He had lost about a third of his body weight," Snaith recalls. "And I would sit here, and he would look up with those sightless, milky eyes and basically say, 'Hey poppy, can't you do anything?' So I did. A buddy of mine and I took him in, and a doctor stuck him with a needle,… and after a minute or so, the doctor said, 'Phil you can go out in the anteroom if you want.' I said, 'No, I'll wait here until he's gone.' He said, 'Phil, he's been gone for quite a while already.' Now I only go through this shit to make a point. And that is: If we are civilized enough so we won't allow our pets to suffer a lingering death, then how come we are not civilized enough to allow the same for our people?"

It was in late March that Snaith decided he wanted to die on his own terms. For him the endgame just isn't palatable.

"At a given point you can't talk, you can't swallow. And then you either drown in your own snot, or if you have gotten to the point where you have a ventilator, you usually have some manner of lung infection, which mercifully ends the situation while you are sitting there with a tube to drink with, and a tube to eat with, and a tube to pee through, and someone to come around and wipe your butt every once in a while. That does not sound like fun."

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