An Experience with America.s Hemlock Society

When Sue went to bed one night, she thought she and her husband Bill would be taking a much anticipated trip to Mexico in the near future. But, the next morning, Sue's life and plans were shattered.

She woke up and found that her husband wasn't beside her. At first, she wasn't alarmed. It wasn't unusual for Bill to get up before she did. Sue went into the kitchen, expecting to see him. But he wasn't there. She called out to him. He didn't answer. Then she went into their home office.

She was met with a scene she will never forget.

Bill was in his chair—dead. There was a plastic bag over his head. Attached to it was tubing running to a canister of helium gas. Next to Bill's chair, Sue found all kinds of materials from Hemlock's Caring Friends. There was a video tape. There were explicit “how to” instructions that even described how a person should “practice” before the actual “death event.”

Later, searching for answers, Sue called Hemlock's Denver office and talked to Lois Shafer who heads Caring Friends. Sue said there were no apologies from Shafer. Instead, Shafer told her that Caring Friends always reviews medical records to make sure the program is appropriate for those who are seeking services.

Sue was shocked. Here was a stranger who had decided Bill should get help to commit suicide.

As for any review of Bill's medical records, it's not clear how or whether that was done. Bill's doctor was as shocked as Sue when Bill died. Neither of them had any idea that Bill was considering suicide. Although 46-year-old Bill had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years earlier, the only sign of his condition was his use of a cane. He still drove his car.

Sue doesn't know how Bill first learned about Hemlock, nor does she know how long he was in contact with the group before his death. But she does know that Caring Friends was aggressive in contacting him. She told me she found some messages on their answering machine, indicating that Caring Friends had called Bill again and again and again.

The days and months since Bill's death have been difficult for Sue. She gets through one day at a time.

The International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide receives many calls from people with similar tragic stories, but does not publicly discuss them unless a person volunteers to make the facts known to others. Sue (not her real name) asked that her story be told. She wants to warn others about Hemlock's Caring Friends. “If it saves just one life,” she told me, sharing her story will be worthwhile.