In This Episode: A very different kind of episode: we talk about 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 hope and renewal that’s perfect for the New Year.
- 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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Randy: Welcome to Uncommon Sense, the Podcast companion to the ThisIsTrue.com newsletter with the mission to promote more thinking in the world. I’m Randy Cassingham.
Kit: And I’m Kit Cassingham.
Randy: Woo hoo! This week we’re verging [yep: I meant to say veering] off in a different direction: the story we’re going to discuss is not in the text newsletter, because it’s too long and complicated to be distilled down to 100ish words plus a pithy tagline. Worse, it has some words in it that would catch 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. There are links to my sources on the Show Page, at thisistrue.com/podcast24.
So my source for this is the Times Colonist, the newspaper serving Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. They ran a follow-up earlier this month to a dramatic rescue story that happened in the Strait of Georgia, on the Queen of Cowichan ferry from Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver, to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, a 100-minute trip. Victoria is also on the island, on the Pacific coast just north of the city of Vancouver.
The main character in the story is 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. DeRyan, who says she’s skeptical of Western medicine, decided not to get treated for that illness, which is something I know you can identify with, Kit.
Kit: Right. I prefer living healthfully as best I can so I avoid illnesses—
Randy: Rather than treat them.
Kit: Well, depends on the illness. If it’s cancer, I won’t get treated by typical Western medicine either.
Randy: Well, I guess we’ll find out what really happens when it comes to that, but hopefully, by living healthfully, we will never come to that.
Kit: Exactly. And the right attitude goes a long way.
Randy: Yeah, you have quite an attitude all right!
Kit: Boy, do I have an attitude!
Randy: Anyway, DeRyan took weeks off this summer to visit her adult son in Vancouver, wanting to spend time with him before she died. On October 30th, she 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.”
Kit: We don’t have a classification for that: the official causes of death are natural, homicide, or suicide. In this case, that would be suicide.
Randy: And she’s riding 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.
Kit: Well there must have been people looking at the sunset! Did someone see her in the water?!
Randy: She did this from the vehicle deck, 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 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 might have been in the water.
Kit: You know, I’ve ridden those ferries a lot, on the U.S. side—
Randy: So have I.
Kit: …and it’s pretty amazing that somebody would see her from the vehicle deck. Most people are up looking at the sunset and the scenery.
Randy: 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.
Kit: I sure honor that, as long as it’s not a huge inconvenience to others — and as long as it doesn’t train the sea life that humans are tasty.
Randy: Well, too late for that: I’ve seen “Jaws”!
Kit: I haven’t!
Randy: 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 — 44-57 degrees Fahrenheit — and someone in the water can be expected to survive two to three hours, Parks Canada says, before they hit severe hypothermia and they 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.
Kit: Now I have swum in 40-degree water; it is bone-chilling. Granted I was wearing a swimsuit and not clothes, but you said she stripped before diving off the ferry, which would be kind-of like me being in a swimsuit, so she was naked completely?
Randy: Indeed so, and there’s the first word that spam filters find terribly objectionable.
Kit: They don’t like the word “naked”?
Randy: No, not even the naked eye. But DeRyan does at least have an 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.
Kit: Why is she doing that if she wanted to die? Why is she prolonging her suffering?
Randy: Definitely a good question, but that’s not addressed in the stories I saw, so let’s just go ahead and continue. 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 their 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. 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 is 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.
Kit: Oh man: now she’s really in trouble!
Randy: Just so. 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.” Just as she makes the decision to live, she’s starting to realize she’s just about out of body heat and strength. And that’s when something happens that if this was a movie, it would lose the audience: that little miracle that just never happens in real life. “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.
Kit: Oh yeah, that’s good! But that’s kind of freaky too.
Randy: She pulled it over her shoulders …but! None of the rescuers actually notices the big fish their bait had caught.
Kit: Oh no, really?
Randy: 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 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 first one that Christopher Wood had tossed overboard. Grantham called out, “Holy shit, there she is!”
Kit: Oops, there’s another one of those words!
Randy: Yeah, very often, that would be—
Kit: How cool that the first ring that Christopher sent out is the one that they pulled in that had her.
Randy: Like I say, 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 him.
Kit: What amazing strength.
Randy: “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?”
Kit: Well the smart-ass part of her sure survived!
Randy: Which word sometimes triggers spam filters. Medics took her body temperature: 28-29 degrees C, versus the about 37-degree normal — or 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.”
Kit: It clearly wasn’t her time to go yet.
Randy: Yeah, apparently not. But that’s not the twist at the end!
Randy: But before I reveal that twist, I want to get to my point in talking about this particular story. Kit and I are both long-time volunteer medics, and Kit has also spent the last several years as a deputy coroner in our small county. Sometimes she goes out as part of the medical team, and other times she’s called out as a death investigator. And sometimes, you have to figuratively change hats part-way through an incident.
Kit: When you live in a small rural county with limited resources, volunteers to tend to wear lots of hats.
Randy: That’s for sure. 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 stood down when it was obvious he hadn’t survived — and then you got the call to do the death investigation as deputy coroner. I ended up coming along because you were in my car.
Kit: And you came in handy: he was a big, healthy kid, and we needed the extra manpower.
Randy: I remember that since I’m tall, you had to hand over your 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 you 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.
Kit: No, and that’s the second case that year of someone using a .357 to their head.
Randy: I was on that call too, trying to find that woman who had gone into the woods to kill herself, and someone else finally found her. I didn’t go out to the body since the death investigator — in this case you again — doesn’t want any extra people near the scene if possible, since that disturbs the evidence. I didn’t mind at all not seeing that one, and I really have to applaud people like you who volunteer to see stuff like that, and don’t let it bother you — too much.
Kit: You know, neither one of those bothered me, except for the emotional component of it. And the woman’s I didn’t feel as bad about because she had a much-longer life and history of issues.
Randy: She was a lot older, yeah.
Kit: Yeah. So [while] hers was too bad — and doing it outside makes it tidier, so it’s not as gross. The young man, though, that was a temporary situation he had a permanent solution to. But my personality, it didn’t bother me, except for the emotional component of his family suffering from his loss.
Randy: And that’s 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, and rational people can argue about whether her choice was justified or not, considering her medical diagnosis.
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 safe transit 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. I think it’s tragic when a parent outlives their own children, but what a waste in this case: a lover mistreated you? 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, not 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 with.
Kit: Life does have its yin and yang. You don’t have—
Randy: The light and the dark.
Kit: That’s exactly where I was going. Now, in defense of this kid, there were other extenuating circumstances that added to his broken heart. That at his young age, he couldn’t see past. You and I have the advantage of being ahead of him on the path, and can look back and go, “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.
Randy: Yeah. 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 your life. Just this 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 of this year, about the time Mya DeRyan got her diagnosis. We agreed with his 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 15 on Facebook, keeping their friends in the loop with what was going on. And when March 15 came, he took those drugs, and died, right on the day he chose.
Kit: And that was beautiful. You know it was really heartwarming, in a sad sort of way, to—
Randy: To watch her friends.
Kit: —to support her, and honor her. It actually, I don’t know, it tied us to her in a way. I still reach out to her to say, “I’m still thinking of you.”
Randy: And I feel closer to her now than I ever did before.
Randy: Even though we had met, and gone to meetings together, and spent time together….
Kit: Had meals together. Yeah.
Randy: This really cemented that emotional bond. It was amazing.
Kit: Yeah. And I think — I think — she feels that bond with everybody.
Randy: At least most of them. I can’t imagine she doesn’t. So here’s the twist to the story about Mya DeRyan, the woman who jumped overboard from the ferry to kill herself, and while I briefed Kit on this story before we recorded, I didn’t tell her this part: 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. And I have an example of that kind of art on the Show Page so you can see what we’re talking about.
Kit: So, I think that is a really interesting twist to the story, and I kind-of anticipated that. Somehow. I don’t know.
Randy: Well, interesting but this is where thinking comes in. DeRyan, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Western medicine, apparently gave up after one doctor’s diagnosis.
Kit: Well yeah: if you’re skeptical, why would you want two or more diagnoses?
Randy: Maybe it was a doc in her tiny home town. The stories I read don’t say she went and got a second opinion, but if I got such a diagnosis, I’d 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, and make my decisions from there. 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.
Kit: I don’t know if you remember back when my sister-in-law was dying from abdominal cancer…
Randy: I do.
Kit: …and she was on enough morphine to “knock a horse over” I believe was what the doctor said. And they were reluctant to give her more because she “might become addicted”!
Randy: When she’s dying.
Kit: When she’s dying. It’s like, “OK, let her be addicted!” And actually, the doctors gave her the meds, but they made the comment of “We’re worried that you may become addicted.” I think it was one of those “V-8” moments where you go “Duh, I shouldn’t have said that!”
Randy: And this was before the current opioid epidemic. It was not what we’re facing right now, but even then they were afraid of giving too much drugs to somebody who they knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was dying. They had seen her insides: they spent hours trying to pick out cancer, and they knew they didn’t get it all and they knew it was going to just grow right back. And yet they were afraid to give her the drugs she really needed. So you add in this “Oh, be sure you don’t over-prescribe the stuff because people are getting addicted,” and it’s going to make that even worse!
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.
Kit: Can I interject something here?
Randy: Go ahead.
Kit: So you know part of my EMS training is as a Critical Incident Stress management person.
Kit: And I’ve learned how to train the trainer types of stuff on this. And resiliency is the key. And everything, be it ADD or depression or whatever, having a support community is critical. So start that NOW! Today. Before you get diagnosed or bummed out or see icky things. Build your community.
Randy: And how do you find that community? 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, in ham radio because we’re both amateur radio operators, 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, like it does Kit!
Kit: It does come naturally to me, but you and I both have “never met a stranger.” And I know that’s an overused line, but it’s true for us. We talk to people in the grocery store lines, or wherever. And I want to throw out some other ideas for ways to make friends.
Randy: I hoped you would.
Kit: Take classes.
Kit: Go to church. Find a Meetup.
Randy: Yeah. Meetups are — go to Meetup.com — Meetups are whatever-topic meetings that somebody comes up with, it could be business, it could be some kind of a hobby, or computers, or whatever, and they just set a meeting, somewhere nearby, and say “On Tuesday at 4:30 we’re gonna do this. Come on by if you’re available.”
Kit: And show up, yeah. So there are lots of ways to make connections, make friends, create that community.
Randy: And that’s where Social Media, which I tend to pan most of the time, comes in really handy. Because there are local groups too. We have a couple of different local groups that we both are connected to, just to see what’s going on in our neighborhoods. And we find out about events, and we’ve even found out about speaking engagements and have gone and spoken to them, and it’s been a lot of fun.
Kit: And Social Media doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, but it is good: I mean, we have friends who have gone to support groups online to help them through difficult situations. And they’ve made lifelong friends in those groups, where they actually travel to have parties and slumber parties and events together.
Randy: Right: 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. And if you’re an introvert like me, yeah: we’ll probably sit on the sidelines, but if you see a friendly face, go over and say hello.
Kit: And Social Media again I don’t support it as the solution, but it’s a good stop-gap.
Randy: And that’s just a few ideas for you. That’s it for this week. Happy New Year, and I hope you find this story inspiring and thought-provoking. Let us know what you think in the comments. Plus, if you have a story about someone saving your 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, we’d love to hear about it. You can comment on the Show Page, at thisistrue.com/podcast24. I’m Randy Cassingham…
Kit: And I’m Kit Cassingham.
Randy: And we’ll talk at you later.