In This Episode: A very different kind of episode: a story that’s not from the newsletter, but rather one that’s too long and complex to be shortened to 100ish words plus a pithy tagline. It’s an amazing story of despair, hope, and renewal, with a wild twist at the end.
- My Primary sources for the story discussed:
- The story of our friend who used California’s “Death with Dignity” law is also in this blog: Tom Negrino.
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Sometimes, people think they’re thinking clearly, but they’re fooling themselves. This is a story about someone who wasn’t thinking very clearly, but I’m telling it because it has a great lesson at the end: how to make sure you’re achieving Uncommon Sense.
I’m Randy Cassingham. Welcome to Uncommon Sense.
I originally told this story in the first season, Episode 24, and I realized it still fits in the show’s new slant, so I’m telling it again.
The story was not in the This is True newsletter: it’s too long and complicated to be distilled down to 100ish words plus a pithy tagline. Worse, it has a few words in it that would catch email spam filters, so it’s better suited to a different medium anyway. The story does still illustrate the importance of thinking things out before doing, and there’s a pretty wild twist at the end. The links to my sources are on the Show Page, at thisistrue.com/podcast7.
My source is several articles in the Times Colonist, the newspaper serving Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It started with a dramatic rescue story that happened in 2017 in the Strait of Georgia, on the Queen of Cowichan ferry from Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver, to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, an almost two-hour trip. The main character in the story: Mya DeRyan, a pretty 52-year-old from Ladysmith, on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Ladysmith is a small forestry, agriculture, and tourist town with a population of about 8,500.
DeRyan had gotten some bad news from her doctor: she was suffering chronic headaches, abdominal pain and nausea, and in March, the doctor diagnosed her with a terminal illness, which was not specified in any of the news stories I saw. DeRyan, who says she’s skeptical of Western medicine, decided not to get treated for that illness.
She took several weeks off to visit her adult son in Vancouver, wanting to spend time with him before she died. On October 30th, 2017, DeRyan said her final goodbye, and boarded the ferry back toward her home on Vancouver island. She left her son a note reading: “My body hurts, my heart is full. It’s time. I love you.” She had also posted a video on Facebook that declared she intended to die by “skinny-dipping in the ocean.” The newspaper reporter explained it this way: “As an artist who made her living by using the scales of dead fish to create prints, an ancient Japanese art form called gyotaku or ‘fish rubbing,’ DeRyan wanted her death to be the ultimate expression of her connection with the water.” So apparently her thinking was, she wasn’t committing suicide, she was committing an act of “conscious dying in a way that would unite her with the ocean.”
And here she is, riding on a ferry. About half-way across the Strait of Georgia, which at that section is about 30 miles wide, she took off her clothes, left them in a stack on the deck, and dove into the water intending to die. It was right at sunset. She jumped from the vehicle deck, where there are typically few people, and swam away from the ferry to make sure she couldn’t be seen, but there was a problem: another passenger did see her go over the rail, and he pulled a fire alarm to quickly notify the crew of the emergency. This passenger, Christopher Wood, was really a hero, and was really thinking: he also threw a life ring and an emergency beacon overboard to mark the spot. Once the ferry’s crew got his report, they initiated their “man overboard” procedures, called for more help, and circled back to rescue whoever it was that went overboard. At this point, they didn’t know who they were looking for, or why they were apparently in the water.
Meanwhile, DeRyan could see that the ferry had turned around — it was obvious to her that a rescue operation was in progress, but she didn’t want to be found: she wanted to die on her own terms, rather than let her body be eaten away by whatever terrible illness she was diagnosed with.
Now remember, it’s late October, and she’s in Canadian waters. According to Parks Canada, the ocean water that time of year averages 7-14 degrees Celsius, or 44-57 degrees Fahrenheit, and someone in the water can be expected to survive for just two to three hours, Parks Canada says, before they reach severe hypothermia, go unconscious, and drown. As I understand it, that timing actually assumes the person in the water has some kind of clothing on, which holds a layer of warmer water next to the skin. DeRyan was, as noted, was naked …and there’s the first word that spam filters find terribly objectionable.
But she does at least have one survival advantage: she spent the time floating in the water on her back, meditating and doing breathing exercises, and concentrating on keeping her core warm — which is probably what saved her, since while cold water sucks heat from the body 32 times faster than cold air does, physical exertion, like swimming or treading water, also speeds up the rate at which the body loses heat. So by meditating and floating, rather than exerting herself, DeRyan extended her survival time. Though it’s unclear why she was doing that since she wanted to die, but the news articles I saw didn’t address that question.
During this time, the search is intensifying. Not just the ferry crew is looking for her, but another ferry in the Strait, and three boats from the Canadian Coast Guard, have responded to the distress calls, and their crews are also looking. The Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue service also sent a boat and a helicopter. The ferries launched their rescue boats to criss-cross the water, hoping to find her. But it’s getting dark; the helicopter is looking from the air, presumably with infrared devices to find her in the water — a tiny speck of warmth that’s losing heat by the minute.
Amazingly, DeRyan lasts not just two or three hours, but for five hours, at which point, she said later, “I could feel the intensity of the search, that crisis and the desperation to find me and I didn’t want to go in that way, with that negative energy.” OK, so she’s feeling bad about it, but she’s almost at the end of her strength: she can’t very well just swim toward one of the boats, or even into a spotlight to be seen.
She apparently just used her sheer force of willpower to float, and she said she didn’t even feel the cold for the first four hours. “I had to make the conscious decision to let them rescue me,” she said. “I know it inconvenienced and worried a lot of people and that’s not what I wanted.” But, as she makes that decision to live, she’s starting to realize she’s just about out of body heat and strength. And that’s when something happened that, if this was a movie, it would instantly lose the audience: that little miracle that just never happens in real life. Or, at least, we think it doesn’t. “I was breathing heavily,” she said. “I couldn’t calm down. I was begging the universe to give me a log or something to grab onto.” And right at that moment, a life ring floated right up to her.
She pulled it over her shoulders …but! None of the rescuers actually noticed the big fish their bait had caught. After five hours of not spotting the person they were trying to rescue, the Coast Guard had made the difficult decision to give up the search — to leave the unknown victim for dead. After all, their charts said that survival after three hours in water that cold was unlikely. The ferries recalled their rescue boats, and crews started retrieving the deployed life rings. And that’s when Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue crewman Ian Grantham saw something in the life ring he was retrieving — that very first one that passenger Christopher Wood had tossed overboard. Grantham called out, “Holy shit, there she is!”
There’s another word that sometimes trips spam filters….
Again, it’s one of those weird coincidences that movie audiences wouldn’t even buy — they’d just walk out of the theater. After five hours in the cold Canadian ocean, DeRyan actually had enough energy to brush the hair out of her eyes and wave to crewman Grantham.
“There was a bit of well, not pandemonium, but excitement,” Grantham said. Another crewman, Rob Alexander, told DeRyan, “We’ve been looking for you.” Perhaps a bit disappointed that her plan was thwarted, DeRyan remembers that she answered, “Who, me?”
Medics took her body temperature: 28-29 degrees C, versus the about 37-degree normal — or around 83 versus 98.6 for those of us using a particular, outmoded temperature scale.
Your body gives up on shivering at about 32 degrees. Unconsciousness is expected at about 28 degrees — the top line of “severe” hypothermia, which is exactly where DeRyan was — so indeed she would very likely have drowned within moments if she hadn’t found that life ring. And about that life ring floating over to her just as she decided she had better accept rescue? While DeRyan says she’s not religious, “I have tremendous faith,” she said, “but even this was beyond my comprehension.”
But that’s not the twist at the end!
Before I reveal that twist, I want to get to my point in talking about this particular story. My wife and I are both long-time volunteer medics, and she also spent several years as a deputy coroner in our small county. Sometimes she went out as part of the medical team, and other times she was called out as a death investigator. And sometimes, she had to figuratively and literally change hats part-way through an incident.
In both of those roles, we’ve been to quite a few attempted, and successful, suicides. Most of the time, those cases are tragic in that the person has chosen a permanent solution to a really very temporary personal setback. The one I’m thinking of specifically was a few years ago. A young man had broken up with a lover who was taking advantage of him, so he drove to a favorite spot about 6 miles from our house, stuck a .357 magnum under his chin, and pulled the trigger. We initially rolled as medics, but were canceled when it was obvious he hadn’t survived. But we stayed close because Kit was on-call as the deputy coroner that day. We just had to wait for her to be called in by the sheriff’s deputy to do the death investigation. I ended up going along because she was in my “quick-response” vehicle for the medical call.
At one point, since I’m tall, Kit had to hand over her camera so I could get photos of where the bullet came through the roof of his pickup truck after it came out of the top of his head. And then she and the sheriff’s deputy needed help putting his corpse into a body bag, so I helped with that, too. I’ll just say that a head that’s had a .357 magnum slug blow through it isn’t a pretty sight.
Earlier that same year, Kit and I were on another call, trying to find a missing woman who, it turns out, had gone into the woods to kill herself; someone else finally found her, ironically in the very place that I had wanted to look, but was held back by the deputy because they were thinking of bringing in a tracking dog. When she was found, I didn’t go out to the body since the death investigator — in this case Kit again — doesn’t want any extra people near the scene if possible, since that disturbs evidence. I didn’t mind at all not seeing that one, and I really have to applaud people like my wife who volunteer to see stuff like that, and don’t let it bother them …at least very much.
And that’s part of my point with talking about this story: so often, people intent on suicide don’t just overlook the bigger picture, that whatever is bothering them will usually blow over, they’ll learn a lesson or come to a realization, and they get to live a long and interesting life. Very often, a suicide, attempted or completed, means they impact a lot of other people too. Not just family and friends, but rescuers, and often complete strangers.
With her doctor’s diagnosis, DeRyan decided that her time had come, and came up with a way to go out on her own terms. But the choice she made — to jump off a ferry — inadvertently involved hundreds of people. She didn’t really think about that before she took her action.
I’m not just talking about the ferry crew who had to deal with a “man overboard” situation, but another ferry in the area came to help, and their crew, and the Coast Guard, and hundreds of passengers who had somewhere to go that night, are all part of this story whether they wanted to be or not. They didn’t get to go home on time that evening because they spent five hours trying to save one person who didn’t really want to be saved — at least until the very last second. And the passengers of two ships had to just sit around and wait, because the crews that were responsible for their safety were busy.
And the two local people I mentioned, who were successful in their suicides: those cases involved search teams too, looking for them, and finding something pretty ugly. Then there were reports for law enforcement to write, and a death scene investigator — Kit, in those cases — had to go to those autopsies, and write another report. Not to mention the pathologists who had to perform those autopsies, but their assistants, then the mortuary, and then the funeral the parents of that young man had to put on, and the husband of the woman. I think it’s tragic when a parent outlives their own children, but what a waste in this case: a lover mistreated him? Welcome to life, kid. Those of us who choose to think first and react later, if at all: We learn from crap like that, we wise up and move forward, and don’t leave a bloody mess for others to clean up. Because the flip side of not feeling the pain anymore is not feeling the joy anymore either. That is what makes life worth living, and you can’t really feel the joy if you don’t have at least some pain to contrast it with.
Now, in defense of this kid, there were other extenuating circumstances that added to his broken heart. Things that at his young age, he couldn’t see past. Most of us have the advantage of being ahead of him on the path, and can look back and say, “Nah, kid: you can live through this.” But the yin and yang of life is what makes us human, and it’s beautiful in most ways.
Now, I do not have the attitude that no one should ever kill themselves no matter what. Sometimes there really are good reasons to end a life. Also last year, Kit and I helped support a friend whose husband decided to take his own life, and he even announced the specific date he would do it: March 15th, about the time Mya DeRyan got her diagnosis. We agreed with our friend’s decision: he was dying of cancer. He was in terrible pain, bed-ridden, and had suffered chronic illness for his entire life. He saw a lot of doctors in the 60 years he was alive, and they helped prolong his life by many years. But they ran out of treatments as his cancer progressed, and the end was drawing close. He rationally decided that he had had enough, and invoked California’s “Death with Dignity” law, got the drugs he needed to go out on his own terms, and his wife, a long-time friend of ours, counted down the days to March 15th on Facebook, keeping their friends in the loop with what was going on.
And when March 15th came, he took those drugs, and died, right on the day he chose. That story is in my blog, and the link to that is on the Show Page.
The thing is, rather than a tragedy, witnessing his death was beautiful in a sad sort of way: to watch her friends support her, and honor her. It actually, I don’t know, it tied us to her in a way. I still reach out now and then to her to say, “I’m thinking of you.” And we feel closer to her now than we did before. Even though we had met, and gone to meetings together, and spent time together, witnessing her husband’s death, even if just online, really cemented that emotional bond. It was amazing. And — I think — she feels that bond with everybody who was there for her.
So here’s the twist to the story about Mya DeRyan, the woman who jumped overboard from the ferry to kill herself: DeRyan wasn’t terminally ill after all. Her doctor had made a mistake — a misdiagnosis. DeRyan wasn’t rescued and then went into hospice to die. She was in a hospital for a week to save her life from hypothermia, and the doctors there realized she was not suffering from any terminal disease. When she was discharged, she went back to her life as an artist, and is doing just fine. There’s an example of her kind of art on the Show Page so you can see what it is.
And this is where Uncommon Sense comes in. DeRyan, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Western medicine, apparently gave up after one doctor’s diagnosis. The news articles I read don’t say she went and got a second opinion, but if I got such a diagnosis, I’d sure take the time to think about it! I’d go to a specialist and have her re-do the tests to see if the first doctor was right, and then listen to what my options are. Only then would I make any decisions, talking it over first with family or close friends. And yeah, if I’m really, actually, dying from something that’s untreatable, you bet I want the option to use a Death with Dignity law so that I know that I can take that route if the pain gets too bad. Because you know what the flip side of the opioid epidemic, the abuse of painkillers like oxycontin, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, and more? It’s that doctors are becoming afraid to prescribe such drugs to people who really do need them, and that’s another horrible tragedy.
The lesson to learn here is when you hit a tough spot in your life, whether it’s a lover doing you wrong, or a grim diagnosis from a doctor, it’s hard to think. So I suggest that’s the time to bring in others: friends or family if you have a few you can trust. If not, doctors or social workers who can help you understand what your options really are. There’s rarely any kind of rush. And I’ve had readers write to me after I’ve talked about things like this, saying they have no friends or family; they just sit at home, terribly lonely and depressed, and they wonder what the point is. I get that: I’ve been clinically depressed before; I’ve felt the despair. But unless you’re actually dying from something that’s not treatable, suicide is rarely a good answer.
But how do you find that community — people you can really talk to? The best time to make good friends is 20 years ago; the second best time is right now. If you have money saved, try travel, the kind where you go on tours with small groups of other people, and eat with them, and get to know them. That’s how you make friends. And if you don’t have money, try volunteering. Kit and I have met amazing people in EMS, during travel and at seminars, in online forums — some free, and some paid, or just sitting next to someone on a train and having a conversation. Not all of them have led to great friendships, but some of them have: we’ve gone to each others’ homes and stay connected to, well, a crazy number of people. Our New Year’s card list has something like 300 people on it now — a lot of family, but also just people we’ve met who we want to stay connected to. And I’m an introvert! This doesn’t come naturally to me!
Kit suggests taking classes: is there something you wanted to try before you die, like some kind of art? If it’s your thing, go to church. Find a Meetup. Kit just re-joined Toastmasters, which is where we met back in the 90s. There are lots of ways to make connections, make friends, and create your community. You have to make an effort, but that effort is a lot less draining than sitting around moping.
And this is where Social Media, which I tend to pan most of the time, comes in really handy. Because there are local groups too, even in the world-wide social media platforms. We have a couple of different local groups that we both are connected to, just to see what’s going on in our neighborhood. We find out about events, and we’ve even found out about speaking engagements and have gone and made talks, and it’s been a lot of fun.
Social Media doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, but it is movement forward if you don’t know where to begin. We have friends who have gone to online support groups to help them through difficult situations. And guess what: in that environment where they have something in common with the other members, they’ve made lifelong friends in those groups, where they actually travel to meet and have slumber parties and attend events together. Now that’s a support group!
Social Media isn’t a replacement for human contact, it’s a conduit so you can meet somebody, and find out an event you can go to and make social contact. If you’re an introvert like me, yeah: we’ll probably sit on the sidelines, but when I see a friendly face, I go over and say hello. That’s hard for introverts, but trust me: it’s better than the constant pain of loneliness.
That’s the Uncommon Sense way to navigate a huge obstacle in your life. Start now.
If you have a story about someone saving a life — a friend or a professional rescuer, or even a total stranger who just happened to be there when you needed them, whether it was suicidal or not, I’d love to hear about it. You can comment on the Show Page at thisistrue.com/podcast7.
I’m Randy Cassingham, and I’ll talk at you later.
Since this is a repost, comments start with those made on the original post — the dates are correct.