A conversation about ending life

When it comes to the excruciating dilemma of loving your son enough to let him die, Diane Anderson did not seek out the spotlight.

She didn’t dial the Argus Leader. We contacted her because the national conversation had turned to a brain-dead mother-to-be in Texas, and a brain-dead teen in California. And because a colleague here knew that Anderson, a high school classmate of his who now lives in Brookings, was dealing with her own end-of-life struggle.

Anderson has a 32-year-old son named Ryan who has been in a persistent vegetative state for almost 14 years, ever since an accident with a gun filled his throat with blood and cut off oxygen to his brain.

He was 18 when it happened, on the day before he was to graduate from high school. In the years since, his classmates have married, had children, established careers, maybe even moved away.

But Ryan only lies in bed as he has every day, every week, every month, every year since the accident.

He doesn’t talk. He barely moves but for the reflexive actions of moving his head from side to side. If he urinates, defecates or throws up on himself, he lies in it until someone in the nursing home where he resides notices it and cleans him up.

The part of his brain that manages his breathing still works. He has sleep and awake cycles. But the cognitive function, the part of his brain that processes what his eyes see or his ears hear is gone. The part that made Ryan hyperactive and social and fun-loving no longer functions.

Her son wouldn’t want to live like that, Anderson insists. She says she has been trying for years to have the feeding tube removed from his stomach, believing he would prefer death to this kind of existence.

But because Ryan’s health is otherwise stable except for the brain injury, doctors have told her they will not remove the tube.
To them that apparently would be tantamount to starving him to death.

It is a bold step to talk about it now. Anderson wasn’t sure she wanted to when my colleague sent her a Facebook message. She had to think about it, had to weigh the potential backlash from those who would condemn her wishes for her son versus the possibility that a public conversation might keep another family from going through this hell.

“People will say what they say,” she finally decided. “Maybe this will make it better for the next family going through this.”

We’re going to find out. The story of Anderson and her son, Ryan, will run this Sunday in the Argus Leader, along with a companion piece that draws health care providers, medical ethicists, clergy and others into a conversation about when it is appropriate to end medical treatment and let people die.

It’s an important discussion, one we can and should thank Diane Anderson for starting.