9:12 p.m., May 10, 2011
Updated 10:44 a.m. , May 11, 2011
EL CAJON — Resting on the shaded, leafy porch of her El Cajon house, 91-year-old Sharlotte Hydorn gets right to the point: She says she’s not a merchant of death.
Yes, she sells $60 kits through the mail, with medical-grade tubing, a customized plastic bag and an instruction sheet, but she said it’s wrong to call them “suicide kits,” as others have in recent days.
She said they are designed to help the terminally ill make a graceful exit.
“I’m not killing people,” said Hydorn. “This is my chance to try to help them.”
Her critics see it otherwise, and the Oregon state senate voted Monday to crack down on companies that sell plastic hoods and other items intended to help a person end his or her life. The move comes after a Hydorn kit was linked to a death in that state.
Oregon lawmakers said companies and individuals who provide suicide kits should be prosecuted because they lack safeguards and take advantage of the vulnerable.
“We want to send a message, to make it very clear, if you are in the business of marketing or selling suicide kits to people, you will be held accountable,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Hydorn, a former science teacher, has been quietly assembling the packages with the help of her son in her ranch-style home for several years. She says she fills about 35 orders a month from customers worldwide.
But a flood of media attention, spurred in part by a recent article in The Daily Beast online, has put the tall, hazel-eyed woman on the defensive as reporters and others try to glean her motives.
She offers to tell her story and provide explanations, even if they strike others as inexplicable.
Mary Devereaux, director of the Biomedical Ethics Seminars program at the University of California San Diego, called the sale of the kits “an extremely misguided enterprise.”
She said Hydorn has no credible way to screen customers to make sure they are terminally ill. Many may just be depressed or in pain and in need of a doctor or a therapist.
The ethicist said those nearing death and hoping for a comfortable end should seek out hospice programs and other end-of-life resources overseen by professionals.
Then there’s the money issue. “Basically, she is providing materials that are intended to help people commit suicide — and she’s profiting,” said Devereaux.
Derek Humphry, author of the book “Final Exit,” a how-to guide for the terminally ill, said money is not Hydorn’s motivation.
He said he has known her for more than a decade and believes she is the only person in the nation selling such a kit.
“She is a principled and honorable person,” Humphry said in an email on Friday. “The task she is doing — alone in America — is providing to people who are suffering and want to end their lives a piece of equipment so that this can be done non-violently and peacefully if they wish.”
Hydorn earns about $20 per kit, after she accounts for the cost of the tubing and the 2-by-3-foot bag designed to be placed over the head.
She and her middle-aged son, Raja Hydorn, use a Singer sewing machine to stitch elasticized cloth along the open side of the bag, so it fits over the head and snug around the neck.
The tubing and bag are designed to be hooked up to a tank of helium, which is lethal in pure form.
Humphry describes the use of this so-called helium hood device in the 2002 edition of his book.
According to The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., a 29-year-old Oregon man killed himself in December using items ordered from Hydorn. Family members reportedly have said he was not terminally ill.
“Sometimes my book and her kits are occasionally misused by people with mental health problems,” said Humphry. “That is sad, but inevitable. There have always been suicides for a variety of reasons.”
The bill approved in the Oregon state senate this week would outlaw the sale or transfer of “any substance or object to another person with the intent that the other person use the substance or object to commit suicide.”
Hydorn gets orders from around the globe, including Israel, South Korea and Scandinavia. Many customers spot her services online, under the name The Gladd Group, and send a check to her Rancho San Diego business address.
She believes she is offering a vital product in a world that often mishandles death and dying.
She recalled her husband’s slow, agonizing death in the late 1970s, from colon cancer, and how he pleaded for a peaceful, painless end.
Instead, Rex Hydorn passed away in a noisy hospital ward. “It was no place for a dying man to be,” she said. “He should have been at home. he should have been where his family could love him and pat him.”
Too often, she said, people wait until a loved one is dead before paying tribute. She believes Americans should make a practice of staging “living memorials,” where friends and family honor their relatives while they are still alive.
Hydorn, who was also a former aircraft safety inspector lives with her son in an unincorporated part of El Cajon, south of the city. They are listed as co-owners of the mail-order operation on their county business license.
She grew up in Washington state, since 2008 one of only two states today that allow physician-assisted suicide for the incurably sick. Oregon has allowed it since the late 1990s.
Her health is excellent. “Not a bit arthritis,” she said.
Hydorn added that she wouldn’t hesitate using her own kit, if the time is right.
“It’s really a quality product,” she said.
Steve Schmidt: 619-293-1380; Twitter: @steveschmidt1; Facebook: Steve Schmidt