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

Coleman contends that the standards are meaningless because doctors will simply claim they acted in good faith no matter what.

In November 1998, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a segment showing Dr. Jack Kevorkian giving a lethal injection to a Thomas Youk, a man dying of ALS. The piece earned some of the highest ratings in the show's history. It also outraged people who work with ALS patients, says Carol Levey of the ALS Association (ALSA) in Los Angeles. "It gave the impression that people with ALS have no quality of life and no choice."

The ALSA maintains that with early detection and assisted-living measures, ALS patients can significantly improve their quality of life. The group neither condones nor condemns suicide. They asked 60 Minutes to do another piece, about ALS patients who choose to live with the disease. Wallace agreed. The second story aired in February 1999. "[Wallace] said he never realized you could have a fatal disease and live a full life," Levey says.

A man in full: Phil Snaith in the chair in which he hopes to expire
A man in full: Phil Snaith in the chair in which he hopes to expire

Originally Snaith thought he'd take his fight to the courts. But then he found Krischer v. McIver and realized the legal avenues were all but closed. He's still convinced he'd be a dream plaintiff for a lawyer willing to attack the issue from a different angle. But he has neither the time nor the inclination to try the case himself. "These things take forever," he says. "When you have a life expectancy of a year or two, three maybe, it's too much."

So back in April, he decided to mount his own media campaign. His dream was to make such a stink about the state's interference in his death that he would push Elián off CNN. He envisioned parking himself in a lawn chair on the grass in front of the Broward County courthouse "with a big sign up basically making all the arguments, describing how much fun it is to let nature run its course, and demanding that either the Supremes get their heads out of their butts or that the legislature do something about it." He'd have a contest to see who, among passersby, could come up with the most creative way to kill oneself. Audience participation, as any showman knows, is a great way to keep 'em coming back for more.

And he talked of driving to Tallahassee and dragging himself into the halls of power so lawmakers could see, in the flesh, the reason why death is sometimes the best option. If personal appeals work for lobbyists, then maybe they would work for a guy who simply wants to die with dignity.

However he chooses to press the issue, Snaith's family -- at least those members who could be contacted for this story -- is behind him. "I think that in the end, unless you have actually gone to that threshold and are facing the consequences directly, you just would not understand," says younger brother Roger Snaith from his home in Sydney, Australia. "An interesting way of looking at this, although somewhat morbid, is that Phil has an opportunity. He is in a situation that neither he nor anyone else would want to be in, but a fact is a fact. He can do nothing but wither away or do something constructive. What he is doing is trying to create some good for the future out of his tragic situation, and he should be admired for that."

"I love that he is doing this," says Snaith's sister, Lori Lipoma, a radio host and writer in Atlanta.

Lipoma is 17 years younger than her big brother, and they were never close. Through e-mail their relationship has reached a "détente." It would feel odd to play the close sibling now, Lipoma says, but emotional distance doesn't diminish her respect. Besides, as a writer Lipoma can't help but note the tragic irony in her brother's illness. "You read these stories from literature, and you find the ultimate irony. That is what I see in Phil's case. The man is a brain, first and foremost, and that is all he is going to be left with. Jesus, I couldn't have written that."

But ALS is a relentless adversary, and it's steadily draining Snaith of both the ability and will to raise hell, which may be the cruelest irony of all.

These days Elián has all but vanished from CNN, and the legislators have gone home for the summer. Which is fine, because Tallahassee is too damn far for Snaith to drive to anyway. While he has managed to dash off a handful of indignant letters to local representatives, Snaith has yet to make it to the courthouse lawn. It's trouble enough to cook dinner anymore. "It's like the chains and locks on Marley's ghost," he says. "After a while you just say 'fuck it.'"

He's yet to secure the necessary pills. Sooner or later there will come a point at which Snaith won't have the physical ability to hasten his own end. Wildermuth, his girlfriend, has seen it time and time again in her years as a critical-care nurse. "By the time they decide it's time, generally they can't do it by themselves," she says.

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