Diane Rehm, a longtime National Public Radio host who has hosted “The Diane Rehm Show” for more than 30 years, visited Ann Arbor Thursday to promote her new book, a memoir published earlier this year titled “On My Own”.
Along with Cynthia Canty, host of Michigan Radio’s “Stateside” program, Rehm addressed the topic of “death with dignity” in front of a sold-out crowd at Rackham Auditorium, an issue she’s frequently discussed on her show.
The term refers to a set of laws six states have made motions to adopt that allow mentally competent terminally ill adult patients the option to decline further treatment, essentially ending their own lives. In a on-stage conversation with Canty, Rehm largely explored the issue through the recent death of her husband of 54 years, John Rehm, which her memoir also discusses in extensive detail.
She described how her husband, who had lived with Parkinson’s disease for nine years, told his doctor “he was ready to go,” but was told there was nothing a doctor could do from a legal, moral or ethical standpoint.
“John said, ‘I feel betrayed,’ ” Rehm said. “(He) decided on June 14 that he would stop taking food, water, medicine. I sat by his side for 10 days, knowing that his mouth had to be dried … and just watched over him carefully.”
Her book, she said, aims to be a honest account of her husband’s passing, exploring how Rehm has had to adapt without him after being married for most of her life.
She said every person should be given the option of whether they would like to continue to be cared for near the end of their life, or if they’d rather go out on their own terms, also stressing that Americans don’t seem to be comfortable talking about death.
“The problem here in this country is that we are death averse,” she said. “We don’t like the subject of death and so we shy away from it.”
Following the discussion with Canty, Rehm fielded questions from those in attendance, many of whom expressed their gratitude toward her in light of her recent announcement that she would retire after the 2016 presidential election.
Like many in attendance at Thursday’s event, Russell Dykstra, a physician from Holland, Mich., was drawn to the event because he has been a longtime listener of Rehm’s show.
After the talk, he said he thought Rehm’s discussion of death with dignity was unique in the aspects of patient advocacy she discussed: both advocacy for people who want to choose how they end their life, but also advocacy for those who may know what they want but are unable to articulate it.
Samantha Banda, a lab technician in the Ann Arbor area, expressed similar sentiments.
“I fully support (Rehm) in the movement to create a dialogue about dying with dignity in America,” Banda said. “We are all going to die and we might as well be able to do it the way we choose.”
Rehm told the audience that conversations like Thursday’s will be a focus of hers after her retirement, reiterating the need to have more conversations nationwide about death.
“Too often, what doctors are not taught to do is to listen to what the patient wants,” Rehm said. “Our population is aging and we have to confront the reality that death is as inevitable as birth, and death is part of the life cycle. So let us talk about this in reasonable, easy, absolute, conversational ways.”