Suicide Kits – Who’s responsible? A Talk with Sharlotte Hydorn, Founder of the Gladd Group and Creator of the Helium Hood [Updated]
I just hung up the phone with a very bright and liberal-minded woman named Sharlotte Hydorn, founder of the Gladd Group. The Gladd Group is a California based company in the business of death. They sell Helium hoods or “bags” as Sharlotte referred to them as and she had about 75 orders in the mail for them the other day. For 60 dollars, a Sharlotte-made suicide kit can be sent to you. A plastic hood, some tubing and an instruction booklet called “Final Exit” comes in the kit. (Helium tanks not included) Helium, in its pure form is lethal. Breathing pure Helium renders one unconscious before suffocation sets in making it a rather painless “exit strategy”.
With mixed emotion I called the number listed in the Yellow Pages entry. I am a believer in euthanasia when it is appropriate. If I was a vegetable, incapable of feeding myself or wiping my own backside, reliant upon others for my basic needs, unable to speak or communicate properly, in chronic pain and not a good candidate for the Braingate, yea…those bags would be looking pretty damn good right about now. But what about that time when I was 16 and absolutely miserable? Had I known about the Gladd Group and their Helium hoods, might I have purchased one? Maybe. I can tell you now I am so glad that I didn’t.
After ensuring I had indeed called the Gladd Group and that I was speaking with Sharlotte herself, I asked her about the screening process. Sharlotte, who is now 92 years old said that she speaks with her customers. She has a degree in psychology and feels qualified to screen her customers. She said,
“I ask them when they will use the bags, now or later and most people say later.”
I did not ask her the demographics of her clients, any one interested in purchasing something without a strict screening process can push back a birth date or make up a medical issue. A study mentioned in the Daily Beast about this reported the following:
Oregon’s chief medical examiner said she’s seen a spike in the number of helium-related deaths in the last couple of years, which she speculates could be related to the newer additions of Final Exit adding Helium as the suggested method of asphyxiating oneself. “Most of the ones we see are young adult males, pretty tech-savvy, in their twenties and thirties,” said Dr. Karen Gunson. And just as the North Carolina study found, “None were terminally ill.”
I then asked Sharlotte how she felt about selling her product to younger, non-terminally ill people. She said:
“It depends, if that younger person were permanently disfigured, unable to care of them selves and make a life for them selves, then that is no way to live. Life can be hell on Earth you know. Hell can be right here.”
I then asked if she felt responsible for the deaths of some of her younger clients that were not terminally ill. She replied simply and plainly:
“I am not responsible, the person who bought the product is responsible.”
Sharlotte and I spoke for quite a while about her own experience with death and that she herself, when and if the time is right, will use one of her own hoods.
Then we got to talking about living memorials. I confessed I was not familiar with the term. Sharlotte elaborated by telling me a story:
“I sold a bag to a Jewish lady a couple years ago. Her family had a living memorial for her. I was actually invited too. The old lady [who Sharlotte referred to her as Mama] had her friends and family come. Mama was in the hospital the day of the party and knew she was terminal. After a hurried blood transfusion, daughter brought Mama to the party in a wheel chair and her friends all gathered around and said hello and gave her a hug and recounted the bad and good times with her. When everyone said their peace, they all got up and danced. After years of being unable to walk, Mama struggled to get out of the wheel chair and she too, danced. After the dancing and partying was over, Mama said that she had such a good time, she was not ready to die.”
After hanging up the phone with Sharlotte, I couldn’t deny liking her. She’s a straight talker, chipper and bright. And the concept of the living memorial makes so much more sense to me than the way my culture currently deals with death. But I’m left unsettled. True, in the end, there are copious ways to take one’s own life and ultimately, we all have our lives in our own hands — it is up to us what we do with it. Perhaps I’m unsettled because suicide is a significant killer claiming 1.5 % of all deaths in 2002. That’s more than cervical cancer and leukemia death rates combined. Maybe it was because of how easy it was to purchase a Helium hood. Sharing with my roommate, an aspiring psychologist, about it this morning she said,
“Pain is often why many people don’t kill themselves, but for 60 bucks, this might just encourage some people to go through with it.”
In the end, I am glad that the Gladd Group exists, and I am thankful to live in a world where people like Sharlotte can do their part to alleviate suffering but perhaps Sharlotte is ahead of her time. I am just not sure that our human race is at a mature enough place yet to be able to responsibly handle her Helium Hoods.
Just today (May 26th, 2011) Sharlotte Hydorn’s home was raided by the FBI. Her entire business was seized including her computer, sewing machine and kit supplies. Hydorn told The Associated Press that she was being accused of mail fraud.  Again, I feel for Hydorn, and at the same time feel a pang of relief that her kits will no longer be distributed to people who may eventually be able to find joy and renewal in life, not in death.