D.G. Martin: Diane Rehm faces life, loss and being ‘On My Own’

Published 3:22 pm Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Diane Rehm’s scheduled visit to Elon University on April 6 is reminding fans of her public radio program how much they miss her since her retirement at the beginning of this year.

For 37 years her morning talk show made her one of America’s most influential people. Her program attracted smart and articulate guests from diverse points of view. Her respectful, sometimes halting questions prompted conversation that challenged her listeners to reassess their positions on important issues.

When she faced a personal health battle with a rare neurological disorder, spasmodic dysphonia, something that affected her voice and threatened her career, she prevailed and made her unique voice a signature asset and an inspiration for others.

In her recent book, “On My Own,” Rehm deals with other challenges she has faced, including the long, gradual decline and eventual death of her husband, John.

Dealing with his death and her pending retirement, she wrote,  “I began to wonder about my own transitions, not only from married woman to widow but also from national radio talk-show host to … who knows what?”

Rehm’s poignant story of her husband’s gradual dying process touches readers’ heartstrings and, at the same time, shouts out an important and controversial public policy challenge.

Her book begins, “On June 14, 2014, my husband, John Rehm–age eighty-three–began his withdrawal from life. The aides at Brighton Gardens were instructed to stop bringing medications, menus, or water.”

Later in the book she describes how John’s illness, Parkinson’s, gradually took away his ability to care for himself, even with Diane’s help. She describes the pain both felt when it came time for him to move from their apartment into an extended care facility.

She writes, “One of the first feelings that strikes me is Guilt, with a capital G. I’ve wrestled with my conscience and the conviction that I should have taken care of John myself during his final year and a half. But that would have meant giving up my career, and I wasn’t ready to do that. And John wouldn’t have wanted me to do that.”

But, she continues, “There are moments when the feelings of guilt are overwhelming.”

Every spouse and every child who has guided a declining family member away from the home that was a loving base knows those feelings of guilt. Knowing that Diane Rehm has gone through the same sad experience will bring comfort to many readers.

As John’s condition deteriorated and he could do nothing for himself, he wanted to die and sought a way to end his life. He told his physician “that because Parkinson’s disease had so affected him that he no longer had the use of his hands, arms, or legs, because he could no longer stand, walk, eat, bathe or in any way care for himself on his own, he was now ready to die.”

But when he asked his doctor to help with drugs that would simply “put him to sleep,” his doctor told him that state law in Maryland would not allow it. John was angry. His doctor explained that he could bring about his own death within a couple of weeks by stopping eating and drinking.

John followed that pathway, and death came, just not at a time when Diane and their children were with him.

Diane is still angry.  She writes, “I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death.”

Not all of her fans will agree with her controversial advocacy for laws permitting medically assisted suicide. But all of them will be grateful for her moving description of the loss of her husband and how it put her “On My Own.”

Diane Rehm will talk with D.G. Martin about her new book and her retirement from “The Diane Rehm” show at Elon University at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 6. For ticket information call  336-278-5610.