Let Me Kill Myself

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...
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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.

"My situation is real simple," he says in a sonorous drawl. "I just want to make the biggest goddamn stink I can while I am able to still stand on my hind legs and straight. This needs to be changed, and if not me, who? And if not now, when? Because you are not going to find anybody who is a better Exhibit A for this than I am. I am one of the brightest guys walking around on my hind legs, I am a relatively stable person. I have run into some bad times and never done anything rash. I am formally educated in the law, familiar with medicine in general having worked in insurance claims and personal injury my entire professional life. I have a perfectly good mind and a body that is going to shit. Who better to raise hell about this?"

Snaith has considered all the options, from "sucking the steel lollipop," to ramming his Mercury into a bridge abutment on I-95, to eating Drano. ("I understand that would be particularly unpleasant," he notes.) Such methods would accomplish nothing beyond the obvious: He'd be just another suicide. That ain't his style.

Instead Snaith is determined to go out fighting. That's what he's trained to do, and he happens to be good at it.

"If I got to put up with this miserable, wretched shit, OK. But how about in the process letting the idiots up in Tallahassee into an aspect of reality they are not familiar with?"

Snaith was born in Sebring, Florida, the oldest of five children. His father was an executive for Goodyear International, so the family moved a lot -- Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia when Phil was young, then England, Australia, and Ohio after he was out on his own. He spent most of his childhood on the move before settling in Atlanta, where he eventually graduated from Emory University with a degree in political science and attended classes at the law school.

He married his first wife, Judy, in 1964 as a junior in college. "She was a cute little thing," he recalls. "Five feet tall by courtesy, maybe 100 pounds. She used to get into drive-ins free until we were married." But he was "young and stupid" and divorced her four years later. "I got bored. I didn't know then that sometimes boredom is the best you are going to get."

It was bad timing. Snaith's number was up in the draft lottery, and divorced men obviously didn't qualify for the marriage exception. Uncle Sam wanted him. The desire was not mutual. "I think it is painfully obvious that one doesn't get to the age of 25 years, 9 months, 10 days as a civilian if one has a hankering for the military life."

By 1970 Snaith was working as a legal clerk in Fort Hood, Texas. It wasn't a bad posting, he says, once he figured out how things really worked. "You either kiss ass to lifers or run the tightest boat in the army." One of his primary duties, at least as he recalls it now, was to remind superior officers that they couldn't court-martial soldiers for petty offenses like growing a nonregulation mustache or smoking a joint behind the barracks.

He lived off base with Judy, whom he'd remarried in 1969. Home was an 8-by-40-foot trailer, which became the unofficial refuge from army life for Snaith's buddies in the barracks. He and Judy had a young daughter, Sunny, who was born while he was in basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He drove a 1958 Oldsmobile that he bought for $100. Life was about as good as it gets in the U.S. Army for a Spec 4.

Snaith left the army in 1971, having completed a three-year enlistment in 18 months thanks to early-out options. In 1973 he split with Judy for the second and final time. ("I've always said the two biggest mistakes of my life were divorcing my first wife the first time and marrying her the second.")

He got a job as an insurance adjuster in Atlanta and accepted a transfer to Miami in 1974. He planned to attend night school at the University of Miami and finish his law degree, but that fizzled because night school was being phased out as he arrived.

In those days he played guitar and banjo, singing folk songs into a microphone strung from a light fixture and attached to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He'd lay down one track, then switch instruments and lay down another so he could accompany himself. His voice is deep and twangy and lends itself nicely to his cover of Johnny Cash's "I've Been Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart." When he got a computer, Snaith burned a disc of his old reel-to-reel recordings, which he calls Irish Goodies. It's a folksy compilation of everything from Neil Diamond to sea chanteys. Overall, the songs have the scratchy, found quality of Alan Lomax's field recordings of Delta blues greats.

Snaith moved to Broward in 1979, where he met his second wife, Jean, at a Mensa party. Both were members. They were married in 1981. He finally made it back to law school, at Nova Southeastern University, in 1984. "I was staring 40 square in the face and decided it was time to do it or get off the pot," he says.

In law school he was the kind of student who often knew more than the professor and wasn't afraid to say so. "Everybody used to loathe having Phil in the class," says classmate and friend Mike Lukasievich, with a smile. "He got the book award every time. He'd sit in the front row every day. I'd sit in the back and stare at the back of his head."

Jean died in 1987. Her death is still a painful topic for him, one of the few that leaves him at a loss for words. Shortly after her death, Snaith bought his Sunrise townhouse, where he's lived ever since. It's a consummate bachelor pad, with a large-screen TV tuned to CNN so frequently the station's logo is burned into the screen, a well-stocked bar, an easy chair, and a collection of medieval armaments. Books and videotapes are stacked in the corners, and a small Union Jack flies from the stairs. Above the TV is a photo of the Falcon's Head III framed in an antique life preserver from the H.M.S. British Wisdom.

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.

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."

For a brief moment in 1997, physician-assisted suicide was legal in one Florida county, for one terminally ill patient.

Charles Hall, a restaurateur who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in the 1980s, won the right to die from a Palm Beach County circuit court judge. Hall and two other dying men asked the court to allow Dr. Cecil McIver to give them lethal injections. Doing so would violate Florida's 132-year-old law against abetting a suicide. The three asked the court for an injunction so that McIver would not be prosecuted.

They argued that a law preventing assisted suicide violated Article One, Section 23 of the Florida Constitution: "Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person's private life except as otherwise provided herein…."

By the time the case came to trial, two of the defendants were already dead. Only 35-year-old Hall remained, and he was in a wheelchair, had sores all over his body, and was legally blind. A psychiatrist judged him mentally competent in his request for assistance in dying.

After a six-day bench trial that included twelve expert witnesses -- six for each side -- Judge S. Joseph Davis Jr. ruled in favor of Hall. He wrote: "The case poses the question of whether a competent adult, who is terminally ill, imminently dying, and acting under no undue influence, has a constitutional right to choose to hasten his own death by seeking and obtaining from his physician a fatal dose of prescription drugs and then subsequently administering such drugs to himself. With respect to the facts of this case, the Court answers the question in the affirmative."

Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer appealed the same day. Eventually the Florida Supreme Court overturned Davis' ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Grimes argued that physician-assisted suicide directly contradicts the ethics and integrity of the medical profession.

Hall died of AIDS complications in 1998.

Had the ruling stood, Dr. Cecil McIver was ready to carry out Hall's request. Assisted suicide is an issue he's thought about a lot in five decades of practice.

"World War II, during the bombing raids on London, there was one raid in particular I remember seeing very tragic things," he recalls over a cup of Jamaican coffee at his Hobe Sound home. "The people being brought into the hospital, they had terrible injuries. We would triage them, and the doctor would have three choices: take the patient right to the emergency room, take the patient to a ward and get to him or her as soon as we could, or else say there is nothing we can possibly do for this patient. And then what do you do about this patient? Do you prolong their suffering? Actually, what we did was give them sufficient doses of morphine and kept giving it to them until they died."

A polite, thoughtful British gentleman, McIver, age 77, gives the impression he's a man who has asked himself difficult questions and is satisfied with his answers. Many of the patients injured in the bombings were terminal, and McIver helped them to die.

"I agonized over that," he says. "I think any sensitive person would. And I realized we had not done anything wrong. I was not responsible. They were people past help. And sometimes to relieve pain and suffering was the primary goal, and if it cut short life, so be it."

By the time the case arrived at the Florida Supreme Court, Krischer v. McIver had a score of amicus curiae briefs attached. Groups from the National Legal Center For the Medically Disabled to the National Right to Life Committee all registered support for maintaining the ban on assisted suicide.

Tewannah Aman, director of the Broward County chapter of Florida Right to Life, says her organization got involved because physician-assisted suicide is akin to murder. "We believe in compassionate care to help the individual through whatever means," says Aman, "but we don't believe a physician should have the right to take a life."

Diane Coleman, founder and president of Not Dead Yet, a Chicago-area advocacy group for the disabled, is a strident opponent of assisted suicide, claiming it amounts to discrimination against an already marginalized segment of society. "A healthy person's suicide is seen as a tragedy, and certainly everybody knows when someone is suicidal you don't say jump when they are standing on the ledge. Why are so many people cavalierly talking about carving out an exception to that for people with disabilities?"

The Oregon law that makes assisted suicide legal includes a set of standards delineating who is and isn't eligible to die with a doctor's help. Candidates must be legal residents of Oregon, at least 18 years old, have a terminal illness and a life expectancy of six months or less, and make one written and two verbal requests. A second physician must confirm the diagnosis, and if either the primary or consulting doctor suspects the patient might be depressed, they can order a psychiatric test. The patient must also be made aware of other options, such as hospice.

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.

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.

Talking about Snaith's suicide makes Wildermuth visibly uncomfortable. She rubs her necklace between her palms and speaks haltingly. "It puts me in a bad position," she says, "because I have a professional license. I don't want to be accused of helping him, and yet I want to be able to help him. I think he should just shut his mouth, and when the time comes, he can do it."

These days Snaith passes most hours in his well-worn living room chair, CNN on the big screen, Sir Winston by his side, a bloody mary or a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand. He's still eloquent, sardonic, and ornery. "So long as I can still stand up, I don't intend to take it sitting down," he says after a few drinks. The trouble is, it's getting harder and harder for him to stand up.

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