Death with dignity

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 8th, 2018. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: hospice for the homeless. 

You’ve heard the term, death with dignity.

That’s what euthanasia supporters use when advocating for physician-assisted suicide. People should be able to die on their own terms and avoid pain and suffering, they say.

REICHARD: But WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg recently visited a hospice center for the homeless where one patient says dying is teaching her to live well for the first time.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, but Linda Lemieux’s room is dark. The blinds are drawn. The only light comes from a TV in the corner. Linda stirs under her blankets.

LINDA:  I wasn’t really watching. I just woke up.

Linda doesn’t sleep very well.

LINDA: I sleep usually during the day. I haven’t had any meds since I fell asleep so I’m not feeling very good.

At age 50, Linda is dying of Hepatitis C that she contracted from needles while she was a heroin addict. Now the disease is causing her liver to fail. She’s in a lot of pain.

SCHWEINSBERG: What does it feel like?

LINDA: Like someone is continuously kicking you in the stomach. It’s hard to breathe. Sometimes it hurts so bad.

Linda gets out of bed and pulls on a T-shirt and pair of jean shorts. With her walker she shuffles into the hallway. Before her liver started to fail, Linda’s auburn hair stretched all the way down her back. Now it’s short and dull.

AUDIO: [Sound of nurse handing her meds] “Thank you.”

A nurse hands her a plastic cup with half a dozen small pills in it.

SCHWEINSBERG: You have to take a lot of meds?

LINDA: Yeah.

SCHWEINSBERG: Do they help with pain?

LINDA: They try. Nothing really gets rid of it.

Before she came here last December, Linda thought she would die where she had been living: on the streets.

LINDA: I was sleeping on the sidewalk on 300 south. Just under a tree on the sidewalk.

Linda kept visiting the ER until doctors told her she was dying and brought her to this place—called the Inn Between. It’s a center for homeless patients who are dying or recovering from surgery.

Linda says when she first arrived at the Inn Between, doctors gave her up to six months to live. She didn’t want to wait that long to die.

LINDA: When I first got there, I was just. I was just ready to let it take me.

MATILDA: Hello, this is Matilda. Good. How about you, Tom?

Matilda Lindgren is the Inn Between’s program director. She says many patients who arrive at the center feel like Linda. Their bodies are full of disease. And they are often alone—long out of touch with their families. They just want life to end.

MATILDA: We’ve had a lot of drug abuse issues, alcoholism, mental health issues are, are I think pretty standard throughout.

But once they are off the street, their attitudes begin to change.

MATILDA: I think for them, they’re not alone, and they kind of bounce back for a while.

While some patients outlive their diagnosis by a few weeks and months, Lindgren says a few have made a full recovery, like one man who showed up with only six weeks to live.  

MATILDA: And then a couple of weeks went by and he kind of perked up a little bit. Then he just kept getting better and better. And um, after about six months, his hospice nurse says we can’t qualify him. He’s doing so well.

That will be three years ago this October.

MATILDA: And he’s doing great. He has his own apartment. He has a job. I mean, it was a lot of work. He’s been sober for two years. So sometimes people, they just need to be loved, and they need a place where they can just relax for a minute.

Lindgren says many patients find their time of dying actually becomes their best time of living. They get clean of drugs and alcohol, mend relationships with estranged family, and spend time in a community. At the end, many desperately hold on to life even through immense pain.  

That’s what Linda is experiencing. Since coming to the Inn Between, she’s clean of heroin, has tried to make up with her daughter, and has found love.

LINDA: It wasn’t until I met him that I decided to fight a little… or a lot actually.

That him is Ernie Dubose. Ernie led a nomadic life, living in all 50 states and four countries. He came to the Inn Between this year after his heart failed, again.

ERNIE: I got a pacemaker. 11 stents and two triple bypasses.

Doctors told 61-year-old Ernie that he has, at most, two years to live. While recovering from heart surgery at the Inn Between… he met Linda.

Linda and Ernie sit and smoke under an umbrella on the patio. (Smoking is a habit most residents don’t give up.)

Ernie says Linda was just passing time before he met her.

ERNIE: She didn’t do much of nothing. Stay in a room and go out to smoke a cigarette, go back to her room, go out smoke cigarettes, that’s about it.

But that didn’t stop Ernie from falling in love with Linda and soon she fell for him, too. Ernie wanted to spend whatever time the couple has left together. In June, Ernie and Linda married in the hospice center’s dining room. Local news channels covered the wedding.

PASTOR: It is my honor and extreme privilege to pronounce you husband and wife. (clapping)

Ernie says they chose to marry in the hospice center on purpose.

ERNIE: We wanted it to be known as a place to come and keep fighting.

Since the wedding, Linda’s health has actually improved.

ERNIE: Back when we got married, they said about two months. Now, they’re not sure. She’s been picking up some since we’ve been together.

Under the mid-morning sun, the couple talks about the patients they want to help at the Inn Between and the places they want to visit in the next few months. Ernie’s hopeful he can take Linda to Las Vegas.

ERNIE:  She never seen dolphins and stuff, so I’m going to take her down to Vegas probably next month and let her see the dolphins down there.

Linda says this—living her life with Ernie until her body stops—is how she’s dying with dignity.

LINDA: Once you accept it, you can go on and continue living until you die. That’s what he and I want to do is just keep living doing something, you know, contributing somehow.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg, reporting from Salt Lake City, Utah.

(Photo/The INN Between, Facebook)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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