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McKeithen's death raises provocative questions

I was sorry last year to find out that Louisiana’s late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen got injured and became quadriplegic. I had met him just once, not long after the infamous 1991 election when he explored the possibility of running for governor. In all likelihood, he correctly gauged that the times had passed by a politician of his demeanor for the state’s highest office, and instead ran and won three more terms as secretary of state.

I am not sure how to evaluate whether he correctly gauged the decision to take his own life, but that’s what he did when last week he asked to be taken off mechanical ventilation after putting his affairs in order, indicating that he could not live on a vent full-time. Since he had pneumonia, if he is like most quadriplegics and couldn’t go for more than a short time off the vent, he died quickly, perhaps unpleasantly, by suffocation.

If I had met him now, 11 years later after his accident, if the subject came up I might have counseled him to take a different course. Existing as a quadriplegic is no fun and one of the worst aspects of it is ventilation. I can see if one led a vigorous life that to be felled without warning in the way he was might cause more damage to his psyche than to his physical body.

But, as I have had visibly pointed out to me over the past 14 years, a body that refuses to work in almost any, even basic, way, need not connote that it is the time or appropriate to, literally, pull the plug on your life. Ventilation is a tremendously difficult thing to live with for somebody on it, and almost as severe for loved ones who take care of that person. Yet, regardless, ventilation is not a sentence stripping a person of any ability to contribute to society. So much still may be accomplished; to see such an example, click here.

I do salute McKeithen because in his few months of disability I think he did raise some awareness across the state about how the state can more efficiently utilize its resources to assist those who have major physical disabilities, which at this time are way too heavily skewed towards institutionalization and away from solutions that do not limit a persons potential, solutions in fact that often cost the taxpayer less than institutionalization.

I am demoralized to think that McKeithen, who had resources far beyond what the typical vent-dependent person has to assist him in living a quality life, nonetheless felt that he could not live such a life, and hope that the state’s insurance and long-term health care infrastructure did not discourage him from living. If nothing else, I hope Louisiana policy-makers as a result scrutinize more closely this infrastructure, without regard to personal interests, in order to improve the quality of life for people who usually through no fault of their own find themselves in situations akin to McKeithen’s.

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