ANN ARBOR, Mich.—On two fronts, Deanna Aikman is fighting the battle of her life.
The dark-haired, petite mother of three is a devout Catholic, a daily communicant with a fervent devotion to Mary. She is also an award-winning pianist.
But she can't play the piano anymore.
“I can't do many ordinary things for my family anymore,” said the woman who home-schooled her three children until this fall.
Over a year ago, Aikman, 40, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), it a devastating disease of the nervous system. Aikman's piano-playing ability was one of the first casualties.
She now uses a wheelchair to get around.
But from her wheelchair, she is fighting her second battle for the lives and souls of the people of her state. Though quiet and soft-spoken, Aikman is rallying physicians around Michigan against Proposal B, the attempt to legalize assisted suicide on the state's Nov. 3 ballot. Unlike her battle with ALS, this is one she chose for herself.
Although friends describe her as a private person, Aikman has put that aside to take a public stand against the possibility that physicians will be allowed to prescribe death in her state. “Once something is legal, it will be accepted. Care-givers will be helping people die, basically. Poor, infirm, weak, and elderly members of our society will be pressured to choose death,” she explained.
Aikman sent a letter to all 24,500 Michigan physicians urging them to oppose passage of the new law.
In the letter, she argued it would impose on physicians a philosophy that promotes “choice” over what have always been considered sound medical practices. Hundreds of doctors responded. Five hundred want their names in newspaper advertisements around the state opposing the measure.
But she said her primary desire is to see Catholics in her state turn to prayer.
“Between now and the election, I would like at least 200 people to commit one hour a week, every week, to praying before the Blessed Sacrament,” she said in September. “I think a thousand hours of Eucharistic adoration could bring about God's plan for our state.”
Aikman points to Oregon, the only place in the world that, having passed legislation legalizing assisted suicide, has kept it in place. “I think it is terrible that, now that assisted suicide is funded by Medicaid in Oregon, they are limiting the maximum dose of Oxycontin, a pain medicine, for patients with chronic pain to the point that the dosage is no longer adequate. My own condition is ranked lower on the priority list for funding than is physician-assisted suicide.”
Aikman's unlikely role as a political activist evolved slowly, according to friends Dr. Cathy Dowling of Ann Arbor and Dr. Brian Kennedy of Dexter. Kennedy, a pediatrician, met Aikman because both she and his wife Kim were involved in home-schooling their children. An anesthesiologist, Dowling met Deanna soon after Dowling herself was facing a potentially serious illness.
Pregnant with her youngest child, Dowling was diagnosed with a tumor of the inner ear that was intruding close to her brain stem. She would need to wait until after she delivered her child to have the tumor removed surgically. “It was a major ordeal for me,” Dowling said. “I wasn't afraid of dying from the operation as much as I was afraid of being incapacitated, of not being able to do anything to help my family.”
After having her baby and a few weeks before her scheduled operation, Dowling met Aikman. Aikman, herself the mother of a 9-month-old baby, had just been diagnosed with ALS.
“She was more spiritually prepared than I was,” Dowling said. “She said she lost it a few times at first, but that it had just made her rely on God. [Aikman] clung to him and her belief that he would bring great good out of her illness.” Aikman's attitude of trust in God “really helped me with my own situation,” Dowling added.
Knowing a petition drive was under way in Michigan to put a law legalizing assisted suicide on the fall ballot, Dowling in August organized a seminar at her Ann Arbor parish, St. Thomas the Apostle. To speak at the event, which was sponsored by the local guild of the Catholic Medical Association (CMA), she invited Aikman; another friend, Dr. Roger Anderberg; and Richard Thompson, a former prosecutor who had twice brought Jack Kevorkian to trial for assisting in suicide.
“The petition drive to bring assisted suicide to the ballot was sponsored by an Ann Arbor group called Merian's Friends,” Dowling explained. “Ironically, Merian Fredrick, whose name the group is using to dramatize the ‘need’ for doctor-assisted death, was also a victim of ALS. She died with Kevorkian's help. I thought Deanna could provide a good counterpoint.”
After explaining how she had been sustained in her illness by the sacraments of the Church, Aikman described many ways in which her parish and other Christians had helped her. “A friend from daily Mass told me God led her to organize a meal ministry. Since then about 30 families have joyfully provided wonderful meals,” she explained. She went on to describe how her family's needs for child care, errands, and laundry were also being met.
“The grace is astonishing. Though I never thought a year ago I would be in this position, I also never would have imagined I could have such peace,” Aikman told her audience at the church. “I think the best thing we can offer to those who, like me, are struggling with life and death issues is mercy.”
Doctors in her audience that night had already been considering how to create a formal vehicle for opposing assisted suicide. Now, the members of the CMA guild began to consider using Aikman's story.
“We were already planning to start something like ‘Physicians against Proposal B’,” explained Dr. Brian Kennedy. “We said to each other, ‘Let's put this together with the message of hope Deanna is giving.”
As a result, Kennedy and Dowling were among the eight physician friends of Aikman who, in September, started Deanna's Friends/Physicians Against Proposal B to support the mailing and advertising campaign Aikman was spearheading.
Thompson, the former prosecutor, was also struck by Aikman's story when they shared the platform. He said she put everything in perspective. “There is so much emotionalism, so many arguments swirling around this issue,” he said. “When you meet Deanna and hear her talk, it all pales in significance to the way she lives her life.”
Aikman's husband, James, agrees. “Everyone who comes in contact with Deanna has a new perspective on life-theirs and hers,” he said.
As Aikman sees it, living with hope rather than despair when you have a terminal illness is also a life-and-death choice. She credits God with giving her the grace to make the choice for hope:"The Lord has used my illness. Those who have been away from him, some for a long time, have felt called back. I have also benefited spiritually, now that my days are numbered, because it is easier to focus on the eternal things that really matter: love of God, family, friends, and the eternal salvation of souls.”
Recently Aikman tried to explain her source of hope in a television interview, soon to be aired on several Michigan stations:
“I would say to anyone who faces what I am facing, look to God instead of your fear. Let him show you how to have hope. Life is temporary anyway. Let him show you the future he has for you — it's an eternal one.”
Kate Ernsting writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.