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Right-to-Die Advocate Jerry Dincin Awaits His Own Exit

THIS WAY OUT?: The Final Exit Network president has helped 14 gravely ill people end their lives. Now, at 81, the Highland Park resident faces a terminal illness himself

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Jerry Dincin at home
In his Highland Park living room in March.

Two years and four months later, Dincin discovered that the prostate cancer that he had battled for nearly a decade had metastasized to his spine.

At first, ibuprofen was enough to manage his back pain. And for a while, he remained upbeat. He stepped down from the role of FEN president but still exercised lightly, took an adult education course about the brain at National Louis University, and gossiped with Guttman. (Dincin had become close friends with the gerontologist when they cohosted a Chicago public-access television show about end-of-life issues.)

Before our meeting in February, Dincin asked Guttman to be his exit guide. He could exit alone, of course, but he feels better knowing someone will be there. He plans to die the same way Dunn did. But he’ll be in his bedroom—not the living room, where Ben might find him.

He shows me a clear plastic hood the size of a grocery bag. It has a circular elastic strip at its open base. Just above the elastic is a hole that can fit a tube, which can then be connected to a helium tank.

Dincin pulls the hood halfway over his head. His blue eyes peer at me through the plastic. After a few moments, he removes it. “That’s it,” he finally says. “You just put it on the back of your head, plug the two ends of the tube in, make sure the tank is full, then pull it down over your face.”

He has pictured it countless times: sitting in bed, attached to the tank. Imagining turning the valve is hardest. It happens slowly, quietly. No Beethoven’s Ninth, or birds chirping outside, or Susanne’s voice to comfort him. “I can’t quite imagine what it’s like to be dead, even though I’ve been with dead bodies,” he says. “I can’t picture myself in that state.”

Susanne doesn’t want to be there when it happens, and Dincin doesn’t want that either. It’ll be bad enough for her to find him later in their bed, where she’ll still have to sleep. He also doesn’t want her questioned about his death or, worse, charged with it. He’s already penned the letter explaining what he’s done and why. He’s told his attorney, his accountant, and the couple’s stockbroker. He has prepaid for his cremation and put labels on the Mason jars that will hold his remains. He knows what can happen when preparations aren’t made.

In late February, Dincin tells me that his pain level is at five and rising. A month later, Susanne e-mails me that he is doing poorly; the sensation in his back is, at times, a ten: “He has started on radiation, which helped alleviate the pain, but he is very weak. He still has a few more radiation sessions. He has been on steroids to help with the pain, but Jerry did not tolerate that well.”

Dincin briefly stops responding to my e-mails. His children make what they think might be their final visits. He spends as much time with Susanne as he can. He tells Guttman to be ready.

On April 3, Dincin and Guttman have a long chat on the phone. He is weak, he tells her, and can hardly move across the room—ten steps feel like ten miles. Given this decline, he finally sets a provisional date to make his exit: May 4. She tells him that it doesn’t have to be set in stone.

Dincin’s last radiation treatment ends on April 7. A week later, he e-mails: “[It] left me washed out and completely without energy. I am slowly recovering from that, but woke up on Saturday with another cancer poking at me from my rear shoulder. The drama thickens, and I don’t like it.”

On May 2: “Very strong side effects from radiation—dizzy-cant walk-stay at home—weary weary at the slightest movement.” However, he adds, “right now no pain from the cancer itself.”

So Dincin postpones his May 4 exit, clinging to the time he has left.

* * *

Little more than a week later, on May 11, comes the news from Minnesota: Dincin and three other people affiliated with FEN—Goodwin, Egbert, and case coordinator Roberta Massey—are under indictment, as is the organization. Dincin is charged with one count of “advising, encouraging or assisting” in a suicide and one count of conspiracy to do so, both felonies. He is also charged with interfering with a death scene and conspiracy to do so, which are misdemeanors. Under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, “the maximum penalty for someone with no criminal history convicted of aiding suicide would be up to a year in jail and a fine determined by the court,” says James Backstrom, a prosecutor with the Dakota County attorney’s office. FEN also faces possible fines.

The delay in filing indictments—it has been five years since Dunn died—stems in part from the difficulty of pinpointing helium asphyxiation as a cause of death. Helium kills by displacing oxygen in the body, leaving no trace. An autopsy concluded that Dunn had died from natural causes. Two years later, Georgia officials told law enforcement in Minnesota about their investigation into an assisted suicide case. That led Backstrom to connect Dunn and FEN.

The charge that he assisted Dunn’s suicide is “just a final irony,” Dincin says. “I gave her no affirmative advice. I gave her no encouragement.” As for the charge that he removed the helium canister and tubing from Dunn’s house: “Since we didn’t think we were committing a crime,” he says, “we saw no reason why we couldn’t remove it.”

At presstime, the defendants’ initial appearance was scheduled for July. While Backstrom says he could seek to extradite Dincin to Minnesota, “It could be possible for Dincin to testify, if he chooses to do so, by video deposition.”

But Dincin isn’t wasting the time he has left worrying about legal proceedings. “I have no intention of going to Minnesota to defend myself in person, and I have medical backup for that,” he says. “If my situation gets bad enough, I will take the final exit that I have planned. And if it doesn’t, I will sit and listen to the trial as much as I can.”

No matter the outcome of the case, Dincin doesn’t feel guilty about his participation in Doreen Dunn’s death or in any of the others. “I mean, I can’t say that I was happy that she died,” he says. “But I would say that I was glad that she was out of her misery. Because she wanted to be out of her misery.”

He will know when it is his time, just as he says Dunn knew when it was hers. Until then, Jerry Dincin is just happy to be alive.


Photograph: Daniel Shea


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