COSTA MESA — Irene Shannon will never forget her mother's last anguished words: "God, please come and take me!"
"I have it on tape," Shannon said. "She was so low, she could barely talk, but she nearly shouted this. It was within a few hours of her death."
Her mother's struggle with death became a defining issue in Shannon's life, she says today, 15 years later. A self-described "crusader," Shannon said her mother's death directly led to her co-founding the Orange County chapter of the Hemlock Society in 1992. The group is dedicated to helping people die "with dignity."
"I learned about the politics of dying," Shannon, 73, said of her experience with her mother. "I discovered that doctors would not help someone unless you wanted treatment. If someone wants to die, they cannot help. They wouldn't even give my mother pain medicine unless she would take treatment."
Death--a topic most of us shrink from--comes up every day for Shannon. She answers the Hemlock Society's hotline and says she has discovered her mother's experience is shared by many others, mostly elderly people who have lost the will to live, Shannon said.
"Believe me, I was learning then, but I sure know now that there are a lot of elderly people out there who want to die. . . . They live alone and they have physical and mental problems, and they wish they could die. There is no quality of life left and no joy in living, and I empathize with them."
A neighbor of Shannon's, in her early 80s, is a typical case, she said. The woman is on the verge of losing her ability to function and wants to end her life but cannot, Shannon said.
"She goes to bed at night and hopes that she doesn't wake up," Shannon said. "She is at the point, and almost everybody gets there, where she can take care of herself, barely. But another day, or another week or another month and she is not going to be able to.
"Most people aren't afraid of death, they are afraid of the process of dying. They are afraid of what's going to happen in between. Most people want it to be instantaneous, but they know it probably won't be."
It is a subject most people don't discuss "until they have a personal experience," she said. "Except for some support groups set up to help someone through a particular illness, nobody is talking about dying. . . . Death and dying, in a lot of families, this is a subject that is not discussed. In my family, it's part of my life."
Shannon says she does not fear her own death.
"I am not afraid of it at all. I have been very close to it three times. I've had two heart attacks. But it doesn't scare me," she said.
The Hemlock Society is dedicated to recognizing the problems related to death and dying and to educating people on what they can do, Shannon said. In some states, the society goes out into the community to help the terminally ill. In Orange County, however, the counseling is done only over the telephone hotline, she said.
Shannon said the Hemlock Society would like terminally ill people to have the choice of deaths assisted by physicians or others, without putting the assistants in jeopardy of being charged with assisted suicide, a felony. The society avoids the word "suicide."
"Suicide used to be illegal, but it's not now," Shannon said. "But assisting a suicide is illegal. I wonder how. If something is not illegal, how can assisting someone with something that is not illegal be illegal? Does this make any sense?"
Dying is a personal matter that should be left up to each of us, Shannon said.
"It's totally an individual thing," she said. "People should be able to do what they want in their own life, which includes their dying. People have a right to make their own choice."
Shannon has a sign on her telephone that instructs anyone who finds her in an emergency situation not to call 911, to call only her son.
"Emergency response people are mandated by law to resuscitate people unless they are wearing a green 'Do Not Resuscitate' band. I never want to undergo resuscitation. Very few people survive it, and most of them are incapacitated to a large extent."
But dying is becoming a political issue, thanks to the religious right and the anti-abortion movement, Shannon said.
"The evangelicals, who have been heavily anti-abortion, are now anti-euthanasia. These are two very different things. Abortion is about a mother's choice and the rights of an unborn child. In euthanasia, we are only talking about an individual's right to his or her own body by choice. There is no one else involved."
Dr. Jack Kervorkian, the Michigan physician who has challenged the country's laws by openly aiding 26 suicides, has succeeded in bringing the issue of dying into a debate among the public and within the medical profession as well, Shannon said.
"The medical profession operates under the idea that the only reason people might want to shorten their life is because they were in unbearable pain, which is not true," Shannon said. "Somebody told me recently that it's not the pain they were concerned about in dying, it's the suffering. The having somebody else have to help you do things like go to the bathroom, this going on for months and months, even years.
"It's the indignity of it all."
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Residence: Costa Mesa
Family: Divorced, three sons
Background: Attended Orange Coast College; county resident since 1959; worked as legal secretary and in real estate sales
On death and dying: "There are a lot of elderly people out there who want to die. . . . They live alone and have physical and mental problems and they wish they could die. . . . There is no quality of life left and no joy in living and I empathize with them."
Source: Irene Shannon
Los Angeles Times