Exit This Way

Denver lies dead center in the right-to-die debate.

For several years, life was one long, lovely road trip for Sandy and Joann Bush, as the retired couple cruised from state to state in their RV. But while they were on the road in Iowa in the summer of 2004, Sandy's leg suddenly swelled to twice its normal size.

Sandy called his doctor back in Denver, who told him to get to the nearest emergency room -- immediately. But the ER doctors just told Sandy that the swelling had probably been caused by all his driving. They prescribed some painkillers and sent him back on the road.

The swelling didn't go down, though, and the pain continued. By that fall, Sandy was popping a dozen Vicodin a day.

 
 
Having the pills that could end his life has helped 
Sandy Bush enjoy the time he has left.
Anthony Camera
Having the pills that could end his life has helped Sandy Bush enjoy the time he has left.

Sandy started 2005 back in Denver, where he got a CAT scan. It showed a cancerous tumor in his abdomen that was squeezing a vein, cutting off circulation and causing a clot that had made his leg swell.

Sandy could be dead in six months. "Everything you've ever wanted to do, go do it now," his doctor said.

Traveling the country with the girl he'd loved since he was a boy was exactly what Sandy wanted to do. But the couple decided to sell their RV and remain in Denver, close to their sons and grandchildren. They moved into a luxury apartment with a view of the mountains and downtown that Sandy could see from his deathbed.

Dying didn't scare Sandy, but the idea of a torturous death did. He didn't want tubes crammed down his throat. He didn't want machines keeping him alive once the cancer took over. He wanted some choice in how his life would end.

He took the first step when he chose to stay in Denver. Although he didn't know it at the time, this city is dead center at the heart of the right-to-die debate.


The right-to-die movement in the United States was pioneered by an Englishman working out of a Santa Monica garage.

In the five years between 1975 and 1980, Derek Humphry found out that his wife had cancer, obtained drugs so that she could end her life, handed them to her when she asked, made newspaper headlines in London for doing so, and managed to avoid prosecution. He wrote Jean's Way, a book that chronicled that period, then moved to this country to work for the Los Angeles Times.

Jean's Way inspired a lot of discussion in both England and the United States, with Humphry making numerous appearances on television and in newspaper and magazine articles. The response was so strong that he soon founded a California-based nonprofit that he named after the poisonous weed Socrates had used to end his life. The Hemlock Society USA was dedicated to furthering the right-to-die movement that had already sprung up in other countries, and the people who wrote Humphry about his book formed the basis of Hemlock's initial membership drive.

"Hemlock had two strings to its bow," Humphry says. "One, to help people who were suffering and wanted to die because of their terminal illness in whatever way we could without getting into trouble. We weren't Kevorkians; he didn't come around for several years. And two, change the law to permit physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill -- not for any old, depressed person."

In 1981, Humphry published another book, Let Me Die Before I Wake, which featured twelve true stories detailing how people had taken their own lives.

Soon Humphry was working with the Hemlock Society full-time, holding meetings and conferences. As the debate over the right-to-die movement grew more heated, the organization kept growing. In 1988, Humphry was visited by Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan doctor who wanted to set up a suicide clinic. If Humphry would send him clients, Kevorkian promised lots of publicity.

Humphry refused the deal. He told Kevorkian that the Hemlock Society believed you should be able to end your life quietly, in your own home. Kevorkian didn't like that, Humphry remembers, and he stormed out of Hemlock's office.

If Hemlock wanted to change the law, the organization couldn't break it, Humphry explains. But the law wasn't much of an issue for Kevorkian, who got the nickname "Dr. Death" after a woman suffering from Alzheimer's pushed a button on the "suicide machine" in his Volkswagen in 1990. After that, he facilitated more than 130 suicides.

Although Kevorkian's activities earned him numerous court appearances -- he showed up to one dressed like a Founding Father, in tights and a wig -- Dr. Death escaped conviction until 1999, when a Michigan court found him guilty of second-degree murder and the delivery of a controlled substance, acts documented in a videotape Kevorkian had made of the death and given to 60 Minutes. (Kevorkian is still doing time in a Michigan prison, and will be there for at least another year.)

Soon after his first and only encounter with Kevorkian, Humphry moved the Hemlock Society to Eugene, Oregon, where the cost of living was lower. From this base, the organization continued to advise people on the best ways to end their lives. And in 1991, Humphry published Final Exit, essentially a manual on how to kill yourself.

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