“Living to the End” was one of the most life-changing stories I’ve ever done. For three months, reporter Don Colburn and I spent hours and hours video taping Lovelle Svart, while she talked about joy, fear, regrets and love – knowing she had only a few months, maybe weeks, to live. I watched her go from someone who looked relatively healthy – “vivacious,” to use her word – to someone wracked with pain trying to swallow a spoonful of black beans. She discussed Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, and debated whether she would choose to use it to end her life before the cancer did. She anguished about finding “the window” – that brief interval after she became so sick she could not bear to live any longer, but before she lost the capacity to end her own life by swallowing the lethal drug.
Every word that she uttered in those videos seemed to carry extra weight because of her knowledge that she was dying. Even when the video camera was off, small talk with Lovelle was not small. It was as if she had only a limited number of words left for this world. It was an honor for her to use some on me. Lovelle gave me advice and, on occasion, scolded me for bad decisions. She encouraged me to take risks, live life fully, and not worry so much. It goes fast. Once Lovelle decided to end her life with a drug prescribed by her doctor under the Oregon law, she asked Don and me to be there at her dying. After much concern about her family’s emotional comfort and careful discussions about who was willing to be identified by name and who was not, Lovelle announced that she wanted us to document her death.
It was just a clear glass filled with what looked like water, on the table next to her bed. But it contained a massive overdose of barbiturates. Lovelle was in the next room, saying final goodbyes and dancing the polka, before stepping outside to smoke one last cigarette. Finally, she made her way to the bed. Surrounded by family and close friends, she answered some questions to make sure she understood what she was doing and that if she drank this glass of fluid she would die. Lovelle knew.
To watch anyone die is an intense experience. Watching a person decide to end her own life was infinitely more so. Lying in bed in her 90-year-old mother’s apartment, surrounded by loved ones, Lovelle said a last farewell and gulped down the drug. It would take a minute or two to send her into a coma. A dog barked outside the bedroom window. Lovelle whispered her last words and fell asleep. Five hours later, she stopped breathing and was pronounced dead.
This is a selection of still images from our multimedia project, “Living to the End.” I hope that you also visit the “Living to the End” website to experience the full story as it was meant to be seen – with Lovelle’s video diaries.©The Oregonian.