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

Phil Snaith is dying. But at the moment he has more pressing problems.

With the help of his girlfriend, Pennie Wildermuth, he manages to dress himself in a conservative gray suit, crisp white shirt, and light blue tie. He navigates his faded Mercury Grand Marquis through an afternoon downpour, making the trip from his Sunrise townhouse to the Broward County courthouse in about an hour. He wrestles his fat briefcase from the car and straps it to a folding metal carrier with wheels so he won't have to carry it across the parking garage. That feat would be nearly impossible anyway, not because the briefcase is especially heavy (it weighs about 15 pounds) but because Snaith is exceptionally weak.

Snaith arrives at the third-floor rotunda bent like a man carrying a 75-pound sack of rice on his back. The security guard won't let him put the briefcase through the x-ray machine until he separates it from the metal carrier. And no, the guard won't lend a hand.

"Well that's just goddamn fine!" Snaith snaps. With an effort that leaves his face flushed and his chest heaving, Snaith manages to plop the case onto the x-ray machine's conveyor belt. He still has to drag himself through the upright metal detector two feet away, but first Snaith has to get his wind back, so he puts both hands on the hood of the x-ray machine like a man getting arrested and just breathes for a minute.

Finally he straightens up and walks through the metal detector. It beeps at him, so he takes his keys out of his jacket pocket. "Back through," the guard says.

Snaith can't do this without pausing to rest. The detector emits a steady beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

"You can't stand in the machine," the guard says.

"Well, I can't move out of it either," Snaith gasps.

Once Snaith catches his breath enough to take a few steps past the machine, the guard waves a hand-held magnetometer under Snaith's arms and in front of his crotch, then motions for him to go.

"Power tends to corrupt," Snaith says, quoting Lord Acton as he shuffles toward the elevator, "and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Snaith's codicil is that "petty power tends to corrupt pettily."

It's difficult for Snaith to straighten his fingers, so he presses the "up" button with the knuckle of his forefinger. On the way to what could be the last court appearance of his legal career and his life, he braces himself against the elevator wall and sucks air. Sweat trickles from his brow. "It's not supposed to be this hard."

It's only going to get worse. In a year, maybe two, there'll come a point at which he'll be able to breathe only with the aid of a machine. Before that happens the 55-year-old attorney wants to kill himself.

Not long ago Snaith was active and vibrant. With his middle-aged paunch and twiggy legs, no one would have confused him with an athlete. But he had steam enough to bring his towering intellect to bear on legal issues for his clients and to spend his downtime sailing his 22-foot Catalina, the Falcon's Head III. He also found the energy to assume the role of enfant terrible of the Broward Mensa chapter, where his conservative jeremiads served as a foil to the club's predominantly liberal intelligentsia.

In December, Snaith learned that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a progressive breakdown of the cells that transmit signals from the brain to the muscles. Its course is well charted and virtually unwavering: weakness in the extremities, difficulty speaking and swallowing, then paralysis and death. Most ALS patients die of respiratory complications or failure within five years of diagnosis.

There is no cure and no medical miracle on the horizon. Most of the advances in ALS research have been in managing the disease, making life more bearable until the inevitable. The steady progression gives ALS patients ample time to ponder their Hobson's choice: fight to the end even if that means being totally paralyzed and dependent on a ventilator or arrest the disease while you still can by killing yourself.

Those who choose the latter, of course, are free to devise their own demise. But if it's a peaceful, nonviolent death they seek, the choices are slim. The ideal way to go is with the help of a doctor who can provide a lethal dose of prescription drugs. However, physician-assisted suicide is illegal in Florida, as it is in every other state except Oregon.

Snaith believes it's none of the government's damn business if he chooses to die with the help of a doctor. An unreconstructed Republican who admires Winston Churchill and takes his politics with a stiff rum and Coke, he demands the right to choose where and when to end his wrangle with ALS.

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Bob Whitby