Paul Gary Nussbaum was a gentle man about to begin a career in social work when he became perhaps the most publicized victim of the Southern California freeway shootings that marked the summer of 1987.
Now, the 34-year-old former marathon runner, who was paralyzed after being shot in the neck by an angry driver on the Costa Mesa Freeway, said he is contemplating suicide with the help of euthanasia practitioner Jack Kevorkian.
In a Time magazine article published this week about Kevorkian's work, Nussbaum, identified only by his middle name, explained the reason for his suicide plans: "Realistically, there is no cure and this type of life is not acceptable to me."
The former Rolling Hills Estates resident, who had graduated with a master's degree in social work from USC just weeks before he was shot, said he is tired of the pain, money troubles and 24-hour dependence on helpers to feed, bathe and move him.
If Nussbaum completes his plans, he would be the ninth person and the first man whom Kevorkian has helped to die since 1990, when the retired pathologist began his controversial work. Kevorkian's medical license has been suspended for assisting with the suicides of eight ailing women, including two earlier this month.
Nussbaum said in an interview that he has not made a final decision, but could go forward with the plan if his condition does not improve. He told Time magazine he will decide before April 1, when the law in Michigan, where Kevorkian lives, is changed to make physician-assisted suicides a felony.
"I won't go down without a fight and I am still fighting," Nussbaum said in an interview with The Times. "But myself and others in similar situations should also have the right to decide our own destiny if things don't work out."
Nussbaum's ex-girlfriend is angry with that kind of talk. In an interview, she identified Nussbaum as the man in the magazine article. The article said the man was a shooting victim but did not link him to the freeway shooting.
Tracy Watson, a 32-year-old Los Angeles teacher, said the talk about suicide started more than a year ago and finally drove a wedge into the couple's five-year relationship, which broke up this fall.
"He is encouraging people who are handicapped and in pain to 'go ahead and kill yourself,' " Watson said. "He says there is no hope for a cure, but that's not true. He has progressed phenomenally."
Nussbaum said he finished the 1989 Los Angeles Marathon and several other races that year on a modified recumbent bicycle and walks about a quarter-mile a day with his helper, but still has little use of his arms.
But despite the progress he has made, someone like Nussbaum, who suffers pain daily, ought to have the right to die even though he does not have a terminal illness, said Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffery Fieger.
"In this case you have a man who is likely to suffer horribly for another 40 or 50 years," Fieger said. ". . . We are not talking about somebody having a bad day." He would not acknowledge that Nussbaum is seeking Kevorkian's assistance.
But it was a case similar to Nussbaum's that prompted Kevorkian to begin developing ways to help patients die, Fieger said.
David H. Rivlin, a Michigan quadriplegic who was injured in a surfing accident while visiting California, had to get a judge's permission in 1989 to have his doctor remove him from life-support systems. The time and trouble to get that permission persuaded Kevorkian to begin assisting others to die, Fieger said.
"If a woman can make a decision to abort a fetus, then an adult can make a decision to end their life with some dignity," Fieger said.
Nussbaum is apparently struggling with that decision. He is continuing his daily exercise regimen and said he is taking 40 to 100 vitamins and dietary supplements a day. He is afraid to reveal the details of his living arrangements because it may jeopardize his medical benefits and asked that the Los Angeles-area community where he lives not be identified.
"My situation is a tragedy and a sad story, but I don't want to wallow in it or spend all my time thinking about death and dying," Nussbaum said.
Nussbaum's living quarters are clean and well furnished, with Christmas cards arranged on a table and brightly wrapped presents leaning against a wall. His exercise bicycle is next to a sliding-glass door. In one corner is a big-screen television and videocassette recorder.
And on the mantel is a picture of Nussbaum running a race before July 18, 1987.
That evening, on the way to visit a friend, Nussbaum was driving on the shoulder of the freeway to get passed stalled traffic when Albert Carroll Morgan, who was legally drunk and angry at another motorist who cut him off, pulled a .22-caliber derringer from behind his seat and shot at Nussbaum's 1980 Datsun station wagon.
The bullet lodged in Nussbaum's spine.
Morgan was acquitted of attempted murder but found guilty and given the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for attempted voluntary manslaughter, assault with a deadly weapon and firing at an occupied vehicle.
During Morgan's 1988 trial, Nussbaum said in court that the shooting left him helpless. "I need someone to feed me and take me to the bathroom. I can't brush my teeth or even comb my hair," he testified.
That condition was especially depressing for Nussbaum, family members said at the time, because he had been an athlete. Nussbaum was a member of the tennis teams at the former Miraleste High School on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and later at Sonoma State University, where he earned a management degree in 1983.
During graduate school at USC, Nussbaum remained a fitness buff and had run 26-mile marathons in about three hours, friends said at the time. His school field work included counseling employees at a bank and with the Jewish Family Service of Long Beach.
Bob Yant, a quadriplegic from Newport Beach and vice president of the nonprofit American Paralysis Assn., said he met Nussbaum shortly after he was shot and has spoken with him by telephone more than a dozen times in the past year to give him encouragement and pass on news of research being conducted on spinal cord injuries.
Now, Yant said he is worried that Nussbaum might end his life when there is promise of medical breakthroughs that could reverse his condition.
"If Paul could tough it out for the next couple of years, he might look back some day and be glad that he didn't take the path he is contemplating right now," Yant said.