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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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" is reprinted from EXIT Newsletter Vol 15 No 4, (October 1995).
© 1995 EXIT