Suicide Kits – Who’s responsible? A Talk with Sharlotte Hydorn, Founder of the Gladd Group and Creator of the Helium Hood [Updated]

Suicide Kit sold by the Gladd Group

Suicide Kit sold by the Gladd Group

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.

***UPDATE***

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. [1] 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.

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21 thoughts on “Suicide Kits – Who’s responsible? A Talk with Sharlotte Hydorn, Founder of the Gladd Group and Creator of the Helium Hood [Updated]

  1. I recently watched a documentary called The Human Experience, and I psychologist told a story of a man he treated who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He managed to survive to say half way down he wished he hadn’t jumped.

    With the current common occurrence of suicide in teenagers, I’m not sure this is something we’re ready for yet. Most teens are so absorbed in their social life situations and don’t realize it will pass and be a vague memory down the line.

    It brings up questions about suicide in general. Did the old Jewish lady end up using the hood after she decided she had so much fun she didn’t want to die? I think those who take their own lives for reasons that aren’t physical, are likely to be feeling victimized or severely depressed. There are ways to move beyond those feelings without taking our lives.

    Yet, it is interesting to contemplate who’s responsible for this. To say only those who use the hood are responsible is from an individualist perspective. If we see each other as connected, shouldn’t we also recognize our contribution to the problem if we choose to create something to assist in it?

    • Great comment Michelle. Your last line is what has left me unsettled about this as well. We are all connected. For example, the manufacturers of guns, in some way are increasing the potential for murders. Even though it is the handler who pulls the trigger, the manufacturer designed that trigger to be pulled. On the other hand, beer and wine are great things to unwind with and can liven up events and parties, but in excess they too are life destroying and lethal. Sharlotte’s Helium Hoods traverse that blurry line between something that is great in some circumstances, and not so great in others.

      Sharlotte never finished the story so not sure what happened with the old lady. I assume she did.

  2. I actually had the same analogy about alcohol running through my head when I wrote my post. I suppose the question becomes, “Where do you draw the line?”

    ps You should consider adding a button the commenter can check off which will alerts them when someone responds to the thread to keep the convo going 🙂

    • Right, the line is definitley a blurry one here.
      RE: The comment alert thingy, great call! Let me see if I can’t activate that…

  3. Wow, Kimberly, what a topic to tackle. I don’t know how I feel about this…I also believe in euthanasia, but this is something altogether different. If something like this were “legitimate” it would be a prescription, not something with poor screening between those who would use it as an easy out and those who would use it as a form of physical mercy.

    But I say this acknowledging that I do have a bit of a deep, visceral response to both suicide as well as drug abuse. This includes seeing it depicted in movies, etc. I feel like the self-destructive escapism is revealed in both and that something much deeper is crying out to be felt or healed.

    Somehow, I feel like this makes suicide too easy. Makes those who just need a different kind of help give up.

    Can’t someone be convicted for aiding in a suicide?

    Thanks for starting a dialogue.

    • Nathania! Nice to hear from you on the comment wall 🙂 Right? There is just something about this that is unsettling! The law in most states is that assisted suicide is illegal. AKA someone sitting next to another person and helping themselves into a Helium Hood and turning on the pumps for example. Selling devices for self inflicted suicide is only illegal in Georgia I think. On the other hand, there is no other devices or way to even talk with doctors about this it is such a taboo topic. Unless people are gravely ill will the people over at palliative care open up a dialogue about euthanasia. But they would not talk with people who are vegetables, and live restricted lives but are otherwise healthy. You know, this kind of reminds me of the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica who could die and be reborn so death was not understood to be permanent….something about that hits home in a way. Anyways, also Guns can be purchased with out much of a screening process and guns are primarily used to kill others!

      ~sigh~

      See, it’s tricky…

      Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  5. I think that life in general is broken. Naturally, evolution doesn’t “want” its gene carriers to end themselves – life is non-consensual from the beginning to the end, and filled with non-consensual suffering. That is the natural state of affairs. Life can also be brilliantly good – but only when things go well, and that’s often a question of mere luck.

    Suicide is unnatural. But the natural status quo is cruel to begin with. We, of all animals, have the potential to end our own suffering. At the same time, we have both a concept and a desire for individual autonomy.

    This is why I think that committing suicide is one of the most basic rights a person has. There is no obligation to live, and there certainly is no obligation to justify one’s own life and death decisions to other people.

    The argument that minors can’t make decisions with foresight, therefore suicide kits or meds should be illegal, makes sense at first glance. But the problem is that minors shouldn’t exist in the first place. It’s morally hidious to create a person and then treat them as a de facto slave for 18 years. And it’s outright evil to deny other free adult individuals to execute their most basic self-ownership in the name of paternalistic rationalization, or national or social interest in their productivity (i.e. de facto slavery).

    We have to work just in order to maintain life. If we say no, we will suffer from hunger and cold. We have been born without consent, yet we are supposed not to have the right to die without pain at the time of our own choosing.

    If life in general, for all sentient beings, were at least voluntary, then the suffering could have meaning, as a price to pay for a life that is worth it. The way to fix life is not to make it painless, the way to fix life is to make it fundamentally consensual. But this is not the status quo. Not in natural ecosystems, not in factory farming, and not in the ideologies of all historical societies. You don’t belong to yourself, no, you belong to the family/the tribe/ the nation state/the invisible alpha male in the sky. Never mind consent. This is a severe mistake, and it makes me with an asteroid hit the earth to end this madness for good.

    • Dear Life is Broken,

      Thank you for your provocative comment.

      If someone, minors or adults want to take their lives painlessly, badly enough, they don’t need Hydon’s Helium hoods to do it. Heroin overdosing, sleeping pills, carbon monoxide suffocation and other methods have been employed to take one’s own life for many years. But as someone who grew up as a rather miserable teen (as I had written in my blog) I am very glad that the Helium hoods were not in easy reach for me because today I am extremely happy to be alive. Hydorn believes she is helping others, but she is also greasing the tracks to a quick and painless death. A good bout with depression, and even suicidal thoughts (as was the case with me) might leave that person better off and happy to be alive in the long run. What doesn’t kill you truly does make you stronger.

      My other concern is that Hydorn absolves herself from all responsibility. It is like the crack dealer saying “it’s not my fault people are doing crack. I just sell the stuff.” We are not islands living in separate bubbles. Our existence impresses upon everyone else’s. What we put into this world has an effect on it. Sure it’s ultimately a person’s choice to do crack, but does the crack dealer bear zero responsibility for selling it? They are part of the equation too. Plus crack, like suicide, actually honors the victim position. Many of us born in modernized societies are actually free to impact the world we find ourselves in. If you don’t like something, do something about it. If something seems unworkable in our culture, why check out only to leave it to others to fix? Suicide is the ultimate selfish thing to do.

      Plus, how do you know life is not consensual? Can you prove or disprove it? The reason we are here is mysterious and ultimately up to each one of us to seek, discover and dare I say, invent the answer to that question.

      – Kim

  6. Well That all Her lits have been taken won’t stop me, I remember looking at a website overseas that had them, I just didnt mark it, But I am looking everyday for it, And they had the kits.

    I think its up to the person as when to end their life

  7. Am I correct to understand that you just HAPPENED to contact this woman for an interview less than a month before she was raided and made the news? How did you learn of her and why did you think to interview her?

    Thanks,
    TR.Wall

    • The Daily Beast ran a story about her some months before I published this blog. I am fascinated by Euthanasia and figured, hey, why not call the woman herself and pick her brain rather than just blabbing about my own thoughts on the matter.

      – Kim

      • Thanks for your reply! Kind of interesting timing, I think! Probably happens to you a lot, I suspect, which probably works out more like a curse than a blessing for you, unfortunately. I particularly appreciate your May 27 post and details of your position in all of this.

  8. Its a tough subject. Of course the Gladd group is not the only one who is selling the bags, Helios Exit Bags, out of Switzerland I think, has been doing it for a while and I dont see them being harrass by the authorities anytime soon.

    • Indeed, it is a compelling and challenging subject.
      Yea, Switzerland is a whole different animal when it comes to laws and personal freedoms and such.

      – Kim

  9. I had the misfortune to have my father die of a brain tumour. He was a very decent reserved man who never swore or anything like that. He wound up in a hospital bed and had to ask me to put his penis into a urinal bottle. I will never forget the tears in his eyes at this mortal embarassment.
    My sister at nearly 70 odd caught a cancer of her gut and was feeding herself on sludge squirted into a fitting on her belly. I was at her home shortly before her death and wound up cleaning my sisters private parts when her system was breaking down. She lay in my arms crying “When will it all be over!”
    Do you wonder why I do not want to put that hell on anyone when my time comes.
    Yes, I have the equipment to do myself in with dignity and without pain.
    The ‘Exit’ group from Australia can assist anyone to get the necessary gear.
    Please do not publish my name to save discomfort with surviving family members

    • Hello,

      Thanks for sharing your difficult experiences.
      I’ve come to the conclusion that in order for self assisted suicide to make sense, to be a good thing and for it to generally alleviate suffering of all parties involved, it is context specific…something our law is not evolved enough to deal with at the present moment.
      I wish you and your family the best of luck, courage and support.

      – Kim

  10. If someone is determine to commit suicide, they’re going to find a way to do it. Better to go peacefully (if the method is followed to the letter, from what I’ve read) than jump off a bridge or be scraped up off the train tracks (and think about the conductor) or found hanging from the rafters — or covered in blood and brains from a gunshot to the head. Pill overdoses, again from what I’ve read, have a very low success rate, so you’re more likely to wake up covered in vomit with a tube down your throat if you do that. Just sayin’ —

  11. I don’t belive in the suffering that terminally ill patients have to endure, simply stated, it’s inhumane. However, these bags aren’t always used for ending physical suffering. On November 8, 2011 my husband of 20 years took his life with the “help” of the Gladd exit bag. He was depressed over losing his family business of 83 years. In October of 2010, with time on his hands, he did research to see if there was a painless way to end his life. What he found was the Gladd Group, what he claimed to be the perfect and only option to a painless death. He simply sent $60.00 cash and received the kit. There was no phone conversation with Sharlotte or anyone else. It was a simple mail transaction to a P.O. box. I was totlally shaken to the core.We were in the process of trying to get him help for clinical depression, but he was having somewhat of a bad day (so I thought). The fact that he had the bag for over a year and not used it, gave me hope that he never would. The night he died I simply went out for something to eat and upon returning, couldn’t find him. There on the kitchen counter were several notes in sealed enveopes. He had gone to the garden shed and with 2 helium tanks and the kit and ended his kife at age 53. This was a man who was very religious, gentle and never spoke a bad word about anyone. The community loved him. He was the love of my life, he has a 22 year old son that was getting married the following month, This has destroyed many lives. And for those who say he would have found another way, I disagree. I have prescriptions in this house that he could have easily overdosed on by just going to sleep, that too would have been painless, but he said that this was the perfect answer. One bad day vs. the rest of his life. It was made too easy, This never would have happened without that convenience of the exit bag. Euthanasia for the terminally ill, yes. For the mentally ill or suffering this should not be accessible. My life was destroyed by this product and the knowledge that it was in my house (hidden) and could be used at any time,

  12. Kin, we’re so happy your article floated to a level where a casual browser would have access to it. End of Days has found its way into our conservations at least once a year, and more if we had lost a family member or loved one.
    As a couple we are commited to limiting the suffering and financial pillage that others too often fallen victim to. Life has been a wonderful miracle, filled with so many beautiful memories.
    In some cases, maybe most, suicide is viewed as a selfish act, but there are times when the ending makes the whole movie worth watching.
    Thank You for sharing.

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