> A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF THE EXECUTIVE SECRETARY OF THE SCOTTISH VOLUNTARY EUTHANASIA SOCIETY
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A week in the life

Events & reflections of the Scottish Voluntary Euthanasia Society's Executive Secretary
Chris Docker


Monday


6am: early rise, catching up on the literature while eating a leisurely breakfast. Later will be hectic. Before I even leave the house each day, I mentally prioritise the jobs for the day ahead and make a list (although this often needs updating as new exigencies arise). 8.30am: try to sort out problems with mail being repeatedly wrongly delivered. Not much luck - usual excuses from the GPO. 9am: down to the post office. Buy stamps, and also check weight of the newsletter so we don't overpay the GPO for franking. Back in the Office, finish imprinting the foreign newsletter envelopes Airmail and Small Packet, then phone to arrange collection. Sort out mix-ups with suppliers over the phone as I open the first of the mail. Scan the thick bundle of information on the political conferences as I mess with the computer to get it to work properly: debugged files supplied by Microsoft turn out to include a bugged file that needs correcting from an earlier update. Pre-sort the mail: a)letters that don't need a reply, b)letters that can be answered with a phone call, c)letters that can be delegated for reply, d)letters for reply (the last group is sorted roughly according to urgency). A long letter from a veteran campaigner who is now terminally ill deserves particular and immediate attention. Stack bills in a pile to be dealt with later.

11am: Roast beef roll and soft drink from the take away. Scan the email letters as I munch. Phone goes - elderly man in some distress and who has difficulty talking so the call takes a while. Put the phone down but it rings with a stream of callers who have minor, but time-consuming queries. Finish preparing a staff assessment and development form for a new research assistant who has just successfully completed her probationary period. Make some tea. News comes over the Internet of international developments in Australia and Canada (no charges in the Rodriguez assisted suicide case.) Scan through it intently to assess the relative importance then relay highlights to the Institute of Law & Ethics in Medicine (who are researching a v.e. bill on a grant from VESS). Tea's gone cold. 1pm: Try to clear my desk. It's a bit like parting the Red Sea. 2pm: colleagues arrive.

Ask John if he will do a short piece for the new Contributors' Bulletin. Formal interview with Deirdre to introduce the development and assessment program. 2.30pm: Deirdre and I attack the mound of newsletters - all the foreign destination ones need to be sorted by zone and counted before the GPO calls to collect the 1700 or so packages. We stuff them into eight sacks, double check the arithmetic, and prepare a cover letter and cheque. Phone goes while we're doing this and we handle membership queries at the same time, but everything is ready when the GPO calls. John brings in his piece, ready for typing. We all take a ten minute coffee break and chat about the latest movies.

3.10pm: plan the afternoon workload with Deirdre. We get through as much as possible of the backlog of subscriptions, reinstatements, bank orders, information queries, book orders, address changes etc. Deirdre is now up to speed on most of the 101 or so computer operations that we use to handle the data, but we'll both work on it until about 7pm, which should hopefully also allow time to decimate the correspondence tray. John pens a letter to one of our friends and colleagues abroad and leaves about 4pm.

By about 6.30pm we seem to have made quite a lot of progress, judging from the mountain of mail-to-be-posted in the overflowing out-tray. There has been a minor snag, when the database program, overloaded from trying to do a Beyond Final Exit mail-shot last week, seized up. Miraculously we get it going again. Deirdre's due to finish at 7pm but I'm hoping she'll want to work late.

We decide to stop and go out for pies and then do a second shift. Lock the Office for 40 minutes. Back at the Office and we start the new six-monthly bulletin we promised benefactors. Last year, when we reorganised the membership subscriptions, as a courtesy and note of appreciation to those members who send 50, 100, 250, and 500 pounds a year, we promised additional six-monthly bulletins. Nine months later and we still haven't produced one, so Deirdre and I go through the mountain of stuff we didn't have room for in the Newsletter and select a few of the more interesting or informative pieces for a bulletin. I'd planned on four to five hours maximum, but neither of us want to sacrifice potential quality merely to go home a bit earlier. We finish at 3.30am, exhausted, but pleased with a job well done. The extra time for me is vocational (i.e. I wouldn't choose otherwise, although the demands of doing the job properly mean there is not much choice about it either). I get home to bed and pour myself what I feel is a well-deserved glass of red wine.


Tuesday


Slightly late start. Read up on the Irish hunger strikes as the coffee boils. This is particularly interesting as we have just launched a world first on death-by-starvation in Beyond Final Exit, and this documentary account supplements the prison officers' technical reports which formed part of the background material in preparing the starvation article. Interrupted as the phone rings. It's the VESS badge suppliers and I negotiate a new supply. Down the coffee while going over some legacy details/options. We've been left some shares, most of which will probably need to be converted to cash. Check the diary for the next two weeks. Medical Law conference in Amsterdam cancelled. Schedule a meeting on Thursday requested by VES London to plan our joint campaign for the political party conferences. Answer the fax and phone messages.

Cappuccino at lunch time from the take away pleasantly keeps the caffeine levels up. Weather's wonderful this week. Remember with fondness the words of a friend who is dying of cancer, reminding me of the importance of pausing in the midst of work to enjoy the beauty and quiet moments in life that make it so special. Stroll back to the Office feeling slightly elated. I have a tendency to get obsessive about work occasionally and so remind myself of things like there's millions of children dying of hunger in the world - dying in dignity is a hoped-for luxury for people in well-off countries.

4.30pm: start writing a response to a journal article (The article contains inaccuracies about assisted suicide and the law in Scotland). Start to prepare an abstract for an upcoming conference on living wills. Write up this diary so far.

7pm: home for dinner and I practice a few songs on guitar while it cooks. 8.30pm: back to the Office. Check the latest euthanasia on-line news and gossip. Tidy up and take two big bags of mail down to the postbox. Sort some info from CD-Rom to back up coming Newsletter articles on Kevorkian and the Netherlands. Decide this is probably the best night this week to take some time off. Call a couple of pals and go to see a late-night movie. Home by about 12.30am. Resist the temptation to go back into the Office to do some typing (I'm a natural night person) and take myself off to bed with chicken soup and a book, managing a couple of pages before I fall asleep.


Wednesday


Reschedule the Thursday meeting for the morning instead of the afternoon. That way, if it goes swiftly I can maybe work on values histories developments with the Natural Death Centre in the afternoon. The reason for the urgency is that advertising deadlines are on Friday. Book a ticket on the four o'clock train. Zip through the mail and outstanding urgent business, adrenalined with a large espresso coffee and a get it done now mentality. Most of the mail today is fairly straightforward, thankfully. Invitation from Edinburgh University to do a guest seminar but not till December. Phone Deirdre to see if she can come in early, which she does. One of the great things about Deirdre is that I can throw her in at the deep end when the pressure's on and she doesn't panic, just gets on with it. The other great thing is that her help means I occasionally get a night off now, although it would be better if we could have her working full time. Get the Contributors' Circular mailed out. Just before we close the Office, Deirdre gets her first Sams call - a suicidally depressed person in tears on the phone and wanting to talk (we call them Sams calls as Samaritans phone technique is needed for them). She handles it, but feels drained by the experience. We talk it through briefly, though not to the extent I would have wished as I have to get the train. 4pm: en route for London.

My bag includes four copies of Medical Law Reports, an undergraduate paper on euthanasia written by a student who did some research at the Office, a magazine with some computer developments that look useful, the book on Irish hunger strikes, and a clutch of articles photocopied from the medical and legal journals. The last of these is particularly important and train journeys are one of the few times I get to read them. My method involves highlighting quotes which will be useful in talks and papers, underline the authors for ready identification, and putting the initials of the journal in red at the front top right. The quotes are later added to a computer database by author, together with the full reference, and the papers filed in the Office by journal title. This provides a dual resource facility: 1) In preparing articles and seminars the database can be rapidly searched for the most appropriate information and quotations - these can be copied directly into the wordprocessed draft without re-typing. 2) The database provides a key to the most useful article for answering queries that arise. This assists both national and international querents within the movement, as well as professional organisations, politicians, the media, and degree-level students. The VESS Office fulfils a function as a resource centre for all questions on euthanasia and assisted suicide - it is perhaps one of our most important roles as a Society attempting to facilitate change. The train's too noisy to get into it straight away - it'll be quieter later on in the journey. I finish the abstract for the living wills conference. I've composed most of it in my head and just need to get it down on paper. At 5pm I get forty winks. I'll probably be up late tonight preparing for tomorrow's meeting, so I look on it as a sort of investment.


Thursday


10am: meet with Meredith, VES London Public Relations Officer. All hopes of getting through everything this morning are dashed as I realise the enormity of the task. Measurements for the vast array of options from the political conference organisers on furniture, carpet, display space and accessories, are supplied in a patchwork medley of inches, millimetres and No Measurements. So eliminating guesswork from the physical layout alone is tiresome.

The advertising deadline for the conference brochure is tomorrow, and the proofs from the printers arrive by fax and are hopelessly bad, so we plead for an extension on copy dates and put pressure on the printers, pulling out the stops to try to convey exactly what is needed. Then the display itself. Meredith's marketing background is very different to my own and the process of thrashing out ideas is invigorating but also hard work. As the costs of producing a professional looking and effective display will be quite considerable, it is important to get it right - especially when it is likely to be fairly crucial in the next stage of the campaign. We analyse different conceptual approaches and decide on theformat. To assess the options within that format we need to look at production processes and costs, and so quickly grill two or three specialist companies over the phone to get figures and breakdowns.

Then we work on content. The subject matter needs to be emotive and/or attention-grabbing, but there are a lot of no-go areas: pictures of Tony Bland could cause distress to his family; pictures of Dr Cox could be even worse - perhaps even precipitating a lawsuit. Then we have to examine copyright availability, potential quality of reproduction when enlarged, and whether the pictures would be manipulated by computer graphics or conventional re-photographing. A call to the VESS Vice-Convener, who is also experienced in political campaigning, produces a couple of useful ideas on the display area and title of the stall. Finally we look at manning the stands and the formalities demanded by the organisers for allocation of passes. We eventually get through it, and decide how to share the division of further labour and allocation of responsibilities for the various deadlines.

The VES London office closes at 5.15pm and I go to meet a friend who has an active interest in euthanasia. The kind offer of a couch for the night means I can stay over till tomorrow without leaving the VES meeting early or running up hotel bills for a second night.


Friday


Make time for a visit to the opticians. Then plan drugs research. VESS library research is centred in Glasgow University's extensive library, but for intensive work the Royal Society of Medicine Library in London is more comprehensive. The librarians recognise me and allow me computer access at no charge. It's also a wonderful building to work in, beautifully furnished and expert staff who have time to assist if necessary. If there's anything obscure that they can't find, a search can be made through a British Library facility that accesses material from anywhere in the world. Weighed down with papers, I opt for the last train (7pm) - the queue is out onto the pavement. The train is packed. I chat to an attractive woman sitting next to me. Unfortunately she is only going as far as Peterborough, but before she gets off she tells me of an assisted suicide story in today's Times (I haven't had time to read a paper today). No, she hasn't kept the paper. I scavenge through the length of the train until I find a discarded copy. Read the article, which reports on what could well be a test case in the USA. Get back to some reading and writing as the train quietens down, and work my way through a bottle of red wine that I've brought with me. Back in Edinburgh for 11.40pm.

Open some of the mail (61 items), faxes (5), phone messages (8) and emails (8). A few interesting pieces, including a go-ahead from the WF Board for a leaflet I drafted for them. The only really urgent item appears to be a fax from a medical worker abroad who needs some technical info on specific suicide drugs within twenty-four hours. VESS has been an international repository for this type of information since the advent of Departing Drugs. The clinician is known to me and I make a quick telephone call.

Then I check the Internet for news of the American assisted suicide story, forwarding essential details to the Institute electronically. It's an important case, but not worth doing a news release on from the VESS Office at the present time. Two phone messages and one of the faxes are from friends whom I have ignored again this week. Make a mental note of friends I want to get together with for a pint or maybe lunch at some point next week. It's shortly after one a.m. If I get home for a quick shower, I'll make the late night local bar in time for a quick drink with some other nighthawks.


Saturday


The mail has grown again. Go into the Office for a couple of hours in the morning to open and sort it all, but it'll be the afternoon before I can make headway with any serious work. The main item is again about self-deliverance, this time from a Dutch doctor who needs some assistance on planning his research. I always answer these sorts of queries: in the relatively new field of self-deliverance research I need all the friends I can get. Break for dinner about 7pm, back to work at around 9pm, and work straight through till 3am, mostly writing and exchanging emails on suicide information.

Sunday


Have a lie-in, rising late and eventually getting into gear with coffee as black as an Ethiopian seductress (dreams!) and some opera played loudly in the background to wake me up properly. Don't go into the Office till the afternoon though. Then work through most of the stuff I want out of the way by Monday morning.

It's a case of gearing up now for the Committee meeting in a fortnight, which I find stressful. The committee, all volunteers, meet approximately every six weeks to discuss and make policy decisions about euthanasia issues and matters affecting the Society. Part of my work consists of briefing them on these issues so they have the information to see the likely results of deciding one way or another on any particular issue. Generally it is impossible to convey this adequately in the amount of paperwork which it would be realistic to expect them to read and assimilate (or the Office to type up), and fortunately most of the Committee are guided by the Office when a particular course is indicated.

Of course this doesn't always happen, which means that the reasoning on any particular issue and supporting documentation then has to be prepared minutely. There are two issues which are on very shaky ground and will entail immense work merely to clarify the facts. There's also a newspaper wanting to run a story on euthanasia so that will be competing for attention tomorrow, together with the things in the must do pile of mail that can't easily be delegated. But all in all it's been a relatively quiet week. No committee meetings, no public talks, no major media interviews or press releases. Typical? Depends how you define it. The VESS Office is events and task driven, so routine is out of the question. My own agenda, on starting the job, was 1) Living wills - there seemed to be no properly researched document in existence; 2) Drugs - the books available were no more than the opinions of one or two doctors without any proper research or supporting evidence; 3) an assisted suicide / voluntary euthanasia law, or a reform to enable it to happen with proper safeguards for those who need and want it - all the Bills proposed so far have been aptly described as Mickey Mouse efforts (attempts to thrust one-page ready-made bills at parliament without any allowance for the reality of the existing framework of the law).

The first two are largely accomplished, and the third is under way, due to VESS. I assess every potential task as being more helpful or less helpful in achieving these goals. That's what we're here for and I get impatient at times with people in the movement who concentrate on peripheral matters but don't get involved by speaking or writing publicly about the subject of euthanasia itself, missing the wood for the trees. They in turn get irritated with me for not considering their input (which can entail a lot of extra work) as important or feeling that there is a difference of opinion when in fact it is simply deflecting from the main issues. But it's all part of the game and no-one said it would be easy. I wish I could buy large boxes of tact from Safeways! Another week finished and I haven't lost my sense of humour, my enjoyment of the job, or my sense of separate identity. I'm even going to get to another movie tonight if I'm lucky. If we can accomplish the third objective that I set myself when I started the job then perhaps I can retire or do something else - write a book or work abroad or get involved with something like the Genome project or Amnesty or something. I like challenges and successes. After that I get bored...


"A Week in the Life" by Chris Docker is reprinted from EXIT Newsletter Vol 15 No 4, (October 1995).


© 1995 Chris Docker
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