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VOL. 39 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 14, 2015

Hooker fights for right to die on his terms

By Harriet Wallace

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John Jay Hooker talks to Chancellor Carol McCoy, not shown, after his hearing on July 10. The 84-year-old Nashville attorney, businessman and politician has filed a suit in Davidson County Chancery Court against a law that makes it a felony for a doctor or another person to assist in someone’s death.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Zaleski

John Jay Hooker, a household name in Middle Tennessee if nowhere else, is suffering from stage 4 metastatic cancer with weeks, not months to live.

Known for his flamboyant character, elaborate costumes and a history of running for public office in Tennessee (and never winning), Hooker has a reputation for fighting on and on. Whether it’s in the courtroom, the General Assembly or on the public stage, he has always liked being in the spotlight and being in control.

The two-time Democratic nominee for governor who tried his hand at business (Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken) and was a mainstay of the Nashville scene in the 1970s, particularly, is now 84.

If he has his way, Hooker will be able to take a prescription pill cocktail from his doctor to end his life and eliminating his suffering.

Currently, it’s illegal in Tennessee for physicians to prescribe the type of medication, but Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy soon change that.

Hooker made a plea to McCoy in July, asking that Tennessee permit patients to utilize the “death with dignity” law to change the state’s current assisted suicide law, which makes it illegal for physicians to prescribe a deadly cocktail to terminally ill patients.

“Death with dignity” or “aid in dying” permits doctors to write a prescription for terminally ill patients in good mental standing, to help them end their lives if suffering from their disease becomes unbearable.

McCoy will have to decide if that is a call for the court or legislators to make.

In May, Hooker, along with three doctors – Jeffrey Sosman, M.D., W. Barton Campbell, M.D., and Robert Ballard, M.D. – filed a lawsuit against the state as part of their push to legalize physician assistance with dying.

This came after they failed to get it to pass in the legislator’s spring session. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, sponsored the bill.

Hooker, an attorney at one time in his career, and the supporting doctors stated the case in a 26-page deposition. Despite the effort, it was still not enough to convince major opponents of physician-assisted death.

Among those opponents is Dr. David Stevens, a physician for 37 years and the current chief executive officer of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.

“I think it’s naive to think if we approve this in Tennessee that it will stay,’’ he says.

“Once you say it’s based on suffering, suffering is clearly subjective,” he says.

“How can you trust someone who can both cure and kill you when they have all the power? I can convince a patient that suicide is a good idea without giving them the diagnosis or prognosis. That’s the kind of power you have as a physician. They are very dependent on others and it’s very difficult.”

Stevens says he’s seen some of the worst medical suffering in patients in all parts of the world.

None was enough to convince him to help a patient end their suffering with a prescription cocktail that would ultimately end their life. The mixture of pills suppresses the respiratory system, eventually resulting in death.

Legal in 4 states

It’s a cause that has many people divided, from the courtroom, to the clergy and within the community.

While only legal in four states, it’s being championed in 28.

Legalizing “death with dignity” has been an emerging movement since the late 1990s but has seen a spike since terminally ill Brittany Maynard made headlines last November when she took a deadly dose of barbiturates.

The 29-year-old newlywed and her husband moved from California to Oregon so she could get a prescription that would end her life. She was only given six weeks to live.

It’s not that easy to just “want to die” and get a doctor to write you a prescription for pills. The law has safeguards in place. The patient must first be diagnosed with a terminal disease and have proof to verify that.

There is then a minimum two week waiting period. The patient has to make two oral and two written requests, asking for the fatal prescription. Another doctor then has to examine the patient to verify terminal status and mental state.

A study by Compassion and Choices shows that most patients hold on to the prescription for about four weeks before taking. About 35 percent of people never take the meds.

A recent Gallop poll shows that seven out of 10 Americans agreed that terminally ill people should have the choice to avoid suffering by ending their lives.

That’s a 20 percent spike in two years, the highest it’s been in more than 10 years.

A Harris Poll showed that 72 percent of those surveyed agree with doctors advising terminally ill patients who ask for information on how to take their lives before the effects of their disease take over.

Enter the religious debate, one that calls suicide an act against God.

Nashville Ronnie T. Mitchell, a Baptist pastor of 35 years, says God draws no line of separation between a person ending their suffering from a medical condition and outright taking their own life.

“I see this as no different than suicide,’’ he explains.

“Man was born with the understanding that suffering was to come. Who are we to tell God when our lives will end? We have not been given that authority. That decision does not belong to man.’’

“It’s important to understand that people who make a choice to aid in dying with medication are not suicidal or in a mental health crisis,’’ says Sean Crowley, spokesman for Compassion and Choices.

“It’s really two completely different things. Compassion and Choices still thinks that helping someone commit suicide and helping to give themselves harm are completely different.’’

Oregon’s law

But if you ask Pam Wald, she would likely tell you that she doesn’t believe God wanted her husband to suffer.

Pam and Ben lived a life of love for 43 years. The two met while working as social workers in Los Angeles, helping pregnant teens.

But, it would be Ben who would need help of his own after doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 lung cancer. The two tried all measures possible to stave off the inevitable – macrobiotic diet, medication, exercise and acupuncture.

Nothing worked. Ben’s health was rapidly declining.

“He started losing weight,’’ says Pam. “He lost his voice except for a whisper, had urinary tract issues, bowel issues, breathing issues. Then we didn’t realize, but in hindsight, I know it went into his bones. He went from 170 pounds down to 118 pounds. I could pick him up.’’

He went on like this for weeks before one night, he woke Pam out of her sleep and said “I just don’t want to live like this. I’ve had a good life with you and Bonnie (their daughter) but I want to look into the death with dignity law.”

Once Ben became sick, Pam, who was raised Catholic, says she went into a protective mode and did whatever she could to help ease his suffering, including helping him find doctors who would write him the prescription he needed to end his suffering.

“I love this man dearly, and I stepped up to the plate. I knew what I was doing to help my husband and the result was he was going to die.

“I just went into a zone. That’s what you do when someone who you love dearly asks you to do something,” Pam adds.

It was a frustrating battle, but Ben eventually found a doctor who wrote him a prescription for the medicine. They picked it up on a Wednesday.

Over the course of days, friends came by to say goodbye. Friday, he took the pills.

Pam says he died peacefully and on his terms in his bed on April 3rd, 2012, using Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.

Pam is now an advocate for death with dignity and works closely with Compassion and Choices.

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