A Hard Lesson Shared on Death and Dying

Her brother, she says, shouldn't have had to die like that. If Debbie Barnes had that night to live over again, she may not have done anything differently. But in a better world, a doctor would have been there to help.

What Debbie Barnes did on the morning of July 5, 1992, was to loyally end her brother's life. Stephen Michael Barnes, 40, was a heroin abuser and a criminal who had been in and out of custody since age 9 and had been shunned by much of his family. Certainly Stephen's brothers and sisters had reason to hate him, particularly after the murder of their father, Richard Barnes, who was killed in 1983 by the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. It was their way of paying back their old pal Stephen, who had betrayed the brotherhood by serving as a government informant.

For years Debbie shared their hatred. But in the end, it was Debbie who took Stephen into her rented North Hollywood home and nursed him through the ravages of AIDS.

His last night, she says, still haunts her. Distraught over her brother's misery and frustrated by inconsistent medical care, Debbie felt helpless as Stephen took an agonizing turn. She wiped away the mucous that seeped from his mouth and nostrils; she saw the desperation in his eyes. Weeks earlier, when Stephen was still able to speak, he had asked that he be given an overdose if his suffering became too great. Now the time had come, so Debbie dutifully dissolved Stephen's tiny morphine pills and fed him a spoonful of death.

Before now, the full nature of Stephen Barnes' death had never been described publicly. Debbie is well aware that authorities may construe her actions to be homicide.

"I don't care," Debbie says. "I don't think anybody understands what I went through unless they went through it too."

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Debbie Barnes wanted to share her experience to make two points. One is her conviction that medical care in the California penal system is an abomination. When Stephen was released from Tehachapi in early 1992, he had an advanced yet undiagnosed case of AIDS. Debbie's second point is that she is a victim in a society that refuses to be realistic about dying and death.

Euthanasia seems to be getting more and less respect these days. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, facing trial in Michigan because of his "suicide machine," has become a staple of Jay Leno's monologue. But amid the laughter, it's worth remembering that 46% of California's voters last November favored Proposition 161, which would have legalized "physician-assisted death." Some voters objected not to euthanasia in principle but to a perceived lack of safeguards in the measure.

As it emerges from the closet of secrecy, euthanasia is gaining support among the public and among physicians who work with terminally ill patients. Americans for Death with Dignity is the new name of a Los Angeles-based group that had campaigned for Proposition 161 under the moniker Americans Against Human Suffering. Jack Nichols, the group's director, predicts that congressional hearings on euthanasia will be held within a few months. Meanwhile, Nichols says, the group is drafting a new measure to address the flaws of the failed initiative.

Dr. Timothy Quill, author of "Death and Dignity: Making Choices and Taking Charge," disdains the "superficiality" of Kevorkian's short-term approach. Kevorkian, he notes, is also a pathologist who has no clinical training and has little experience in learning from the dying.

More meaningful approaches, Quill suggests, will emerge from "general physicians, oncologists and AIDS doctors who are struggling with people who are dying." Physicians, he says, need to understand "that part of their role is to help people die better."

Nichols agrees. Doctors should be prepared, he says, to spare people like Debbie Barnes who are unprepared for such a chore. Physicians, he says, "would know that they were doing their mission in life."

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The Los Angeles County district attorney's office in recent years has investigated a handful of alleged mercy killings, but there have been no prosecutions. It is a difficult crime to prove. Beyond that, there is no doubt some political reluctance in branding grieving relatives as killers. Here's to the hope that the law pursues genuine criminals and leaves Debbie alone.

In any case, beyond Debbie's word, there is scant evidence concerning the death of Stephen Barnes. Stephen's body was cremated; an autopsy is impossible.

His ashes are inside a small box buried in the earth above his father's casket. This had been Stephen's request, and his mother, Alice, decided to go along with it. A headstone marks the grave. Etched beneath Stephen's name are these words: "Finally free."

Some of his siblings, not surprisingly, boycotted the funeral.

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