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Volunteers with The Final Exit Network support the right to a peaceful and dignified death

John Fanning made a promise to his mother that he was determined to keep. It was the vow that he would not allow her to be kept alive using extra-ordinary means. But during his mother's stay in an intensive care unit 28 years ago, this promise was tested.

"I remember going into her room and she was whimpering. She opened her eyes and looked at me, as if to say, 'Why aren't you doing what I asked you to do?'" At that point Fanning approached the doctor.

"I said, 'Hey, I made my mother a promise this wasn't going to happen.' He looked at me and said, 'I will take care of it.' I don't know what he did or whether he did anything, but 15 minutes later, she was gone," says Fanning.

Four years ago, Fanning was faced with another loved one who was dying and requested his help. "I had a very good friend who had COPD. He was so fearful of not having enough oxygen. ... He was afraid the lack of oxygen would affect his brain function.

"He told me he found a group called Final Exit Network. He asked if I would go to his house and meet with a representative to discuss his exit. They explained the whole thing (and my role as an advocate). A month later, I got a letter from my friend the day he passed thanking me, saying he was finally at peace."

This prompted Fanning to volunteer with the Final Exit Network. He is the Southern Arizona Affiliate Coordinator, helping with publicity and educational services. He says that Final Exit is different from other organizations, such as Compassion and Choices, which works to get legislation passed.

"We support that. But we're more in the now. We will have conversations, compassion and care for those who have intolerable pain, an intolerable affliction, or an intolerable disease and they are interested in talking about ending their life. They don't have to be in the six-months to live timeframe. It is up to the individual person as to what their tolerance level is for inconvenience, pain and suffering," says Fanning.

But he is very clear about what Final Exit does not do. "We do not encourage anyone to end their life; we do not assist them; we do not procure the equipment needed to end their life; we do not help them put the equipment together." Fanning is referring to the use of helium, tubes and a hood to end life.

The process to seek Final Exit's services involves several steps and specific protocol must be followed. Because the criteria are so strict, Fanning says there are more rejections given to those seeking services than approval. Final Exit must look at many factors, including mental competence, medical condition, family support and whether there is a safe place for a person to exit.

Final Exit provides its members a lot of information, even if a person does not decide to end their own life. "We are an educational group," says Fanning. "We offer courses on how to select an advocate. We go through the paperwork that a person should put together; we offer demonstrations of the use of helium and the hood; we discuss advance directive registries; we explore the insurance angle." He says a yearly membership is $50 and there is no charge if an Exit Guide is assigned to a person.

Inevitably, Fanning says there are those who oppose Final Exit's purpose. "I get questions from people who are religious. They say God made us and only God can take us away. I say fine. I respect your beliefs. Let me have my beliefs. Let me do my thing; you do your thing."

There are others who question how it is helping someone when talking about committing suicide. Ultimately, Fanning says it is about quality of life. "We are helping people know there is a way out. There is an insurance policy out there if they need it. We want everybody to have a good life and we want everybody also to have a good death. That's what we're all about."

More by Irene Messina

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