Death with Dignity

The final days of anti-euthanasia activist J.J. Hanson

January 19, 2018

There are 26 pews in St. Anthony of Padua in Yulan, New York, a deserted resort town in the Catskills. The Christmas lights are still up, the Poinsettias still alive, but J.J. Hanson is dead at 36, which is why the pews are packed with firefighters, United States Marines, and young children.

Funerals for the young are always loud—the sniffling is more frequent, the weeping more consuming—but the most conspicuous noise comes from the deceased's peers: young parents trying to control noisy toddlers. A woman cradles a four-year-old boy in blue flannel at the Church entrance. He can't keep his paws off the laminated portrait, keeps swiping at the gray spackled beard. The woman takes in a jagged breath before handing James Jr. to Kris Hanson. The widow puts James on the ground. He approaches the easel. He reaches up and rests his hand on the mischievous blue eyes that hold a secret only J.J. and James know: He's right there in that photo. He can’t be in the casket a few feet to the right.

James Hanson touches the photo of his father, J.J., as wife Kris looks on
James Hanson touches the photo of his father, J.J., as wife Kris looks on / Photo Credit: Dayelle Stampfli Emma West Photography

James Joseph Patrick Hanson was born March 28, 1981. He was a natural leader and elite athlete with model good looks, a disarming smile, and charm as infinite as his potential. He played Division II college football, commanded infantry Marines in Iraq, and worked for two Democratic governors before moving into an executive role in the private sector. The country boy from New York moved down to Florida with his beautiful blonde wife to go live the American dream.

Beginning in May 2014, he lived as a terminal brain cancer patient with four months left to live. His death would have been unremarkable, were it not for the fact he outlived the diagnosis by three years, that he spent those three years traveling the country speaking out against physician-assisted suicide, a movement that seemed unstoppable after a California woman with the same diagnosis killed herself in 2014, that in his final months J.J. Hanson cradled a newborn the doctors said would never come. He made sure to send a Christmas card each year to the Florida doctor who told him "to go home and enjoy what time you have left."

The three Knights of Columbus march the casket carried by firemen and relatives down to the four priests. An enormous man with bic'ed head and bushy beard assumes military attention. He locks his hands behind his back trying to conceal a wet handkerchief.

Father Joselin Pens Berkmans arrived at St. Anthony's a month into Hanson's remission. J.J. walked to Mass in those days, then he brandished a cane, then a wheelchair, a reverse evolution poster, though the missing link was known to all. He still wore his hair high and tight, the better for you to see the incision scar on his left side. The priest asked after his health each Sunday. J.J. had the same response every time. "I'm getting better every day," Hanson told the priest at Christmas Eve Mass six days before his death.

"He never said he was suffering [because] he didn't want anyone to suffer with him," Berkmans says. "He did not want to go quietly. … He didn't want to go sight-seeing, or drink beer, or go ice-fishing. … He wanted to fulfill a purpose and he did."

Multiple doctors told him there was no hope after the initial scans. He told Kris he would fight it. He moved back to New York and sought experimental treatment at prestigious Sloan Kettering. Surgeons removed the lesions on his brain. The seizures kept coming. He considered it a personal battle until October 2014 when journalists went gaga over Brittany Maynard, California's most famous suicide tourist.

"The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type… . Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!" Maynard said in a last message before ingesting the lethal medication in Oregon. Her mother wrote a book to pay it forward; her widower launched a PR campaign against the mother to spread good energy.

Maynard and Hanson had the same brain tumor and photogenic families, but People magazine chose to ignore Hanson's message to boost the cheerleaders of the suicide squad. He pitied Maynard, saw her as a victim of the broken system that considered suicide a form of medical care. The well-meaning healthy—those are the bad guys, and Hanson admitted to being a part of the problem, confessing that he supported assisted suicide prior to his diagnosis. In June Gallup reported that 73 percent of Americans support euthanasia. Activists prefer the term "medical aid in dying," but even without the euphemism, the issue is as popular as the NFL was pre-Anthem protests. In 2017, 28 states considered assisted suicide bills, from liberal strongholds Connecticut and Rhode Island to deep red Oklahoma and Utah.

So how successful were these bills? The Cleveland Browns would have to open 2018 0-12 to match their performance.

That isn’t to say activists didn’t come close. The Nevada Senate passed an assisted-suicide bill just before Gallup released its numbers. Hanson's group, the Patients Rights Action Fund, launched a statewide ad campaign with Dr. Brian Callister, former president of the Nevada Medical Association. The Democrat-controlled assembly rejected the measure. Callister credits Hanson with the victory

"One of the things J.J. was able to do was present something crystal clear both intellectually and emotionally: He took his situation and said, 'I could have a seizure, not speak, be in pain, depressed, but I still have value,'" Callister says.

Hanson left behind tangible evidence of his value outside of politics. The final diagnosis came a month before Kris discovered she was pregnant with Lucas.

"Hold him up," Berkmans says. A baby in a onesie rises from the crowd. He has his father's Irish eyes and his mother's fair hair. "He left a legacy behind," he says. "He was fighting for the dignity of the people. Now it is in the hands of all of us here."

J.J. Hanson with sons James and Lucas and wife Kris Photo Credit: Dayelle Stampfli Emma West Photography
J.J. Hanson with sons James and Lucas and wife Kris / Photo Credit: Dayelle Stampfli Emma West Photography


Hanson's political opponents agree that he shifted momentum in the debate. Corrine Carey, a Compassion and Choices advocate in New York, battled Hanson in Albany numerous times over the years. They had a "warm relationship," and she is quick to offer her condolences to the family. New York's highest court rejected a suit seeking to make assisted suicide a constitutional right in August, but added that it saw no reason to invalidate such a measure if it passed the legislature. Carey says she expects the opposition to be that much stiffer thanks to Hanson.

"J.J. made an incredible mark with his advocacy and I think his passion will live on with the advocates who believe as he does," she said.

The church doors open. The piper plays "Marine Corps Hymn." The rifles fire 21 shots, volunteer firefighters stand at attention as the casket passes. The pallbearers wheel him to the hearse. They load Hanson with great care. They must have, because by the time the congregation exits they can see the snow still resting on the hearse's rear door—undisturbed save for the letters carved into it: "Love."

Photo Credit Bill McMorris
Photo Credit: Bill McMorris

Hanson opted for cremation. Burial would be impossible this time of year even if the Bomb Cyclone weren't raging to the east. The region has received two more inches than was expected, preventing Hanson's local bishop, as well as Timothy Cardinal Dolan—America's highest ranking Catholic—from making the trip. Mourners pass a Hyundai Accent buried in a snow drift en route to the celebration of life.

J.J. Hanson never hesitated to tell you the bad. The anti-suicide activist considered suicide multiple times. He'd tell you to ignore his eloquence because seizures had robbed him of his speech for weeks at a time and would inevitably do so again. He'd start lengthy conversations by apologizing in advance if he repeated himself or forgot things mid-sentence.

He also never hesitated to tell you of his good fortune. He had the means to seek three separate opinions on his condition before finding a doctor to operate. He had a good job that provided solid health insurance. He had Kris, a wife capable of making insurance companies cry uncle if they tried to pass the buck on treatment. The terminal brain cancer patient treated his own story as a "best case scenario."

"Lesser-income individuals do not have the time and energy to go and defeat an insurance company," he said in our first meeting. "I've been lucky."

Lou Gehrig couldn't have said it better.

How lucky was J.J. Hanson? His doctor gave him four months to live on May 13, 2014, after looking at his scans. He got a second opinion, the gist of which was, "draw up a will." A family fishing buddy was a handyman. He mentioned Hanson's case while working on a doctor's vacation home. The doctor worked for Sloan Kettering and referred Hanson to the surgeon who would later remove 99 percent of his tumor.

Photo courtesy of Kris Hanson
Photo courtesy of Kris Hanson

Surgery's simple. Hanson's real luck came in the form of his wife. Kris calls him "one of the bravest, toughest men I ever knew" at the celebration of his life, but no one doubts where the bravery and toughness came from.

"It was definitely a two-pronged attack," Callister, the Nevada doctor, says. "When I met them I couldn’t help but think of how many patients of mine were ready to fight. A lot of times it's the spouse saying, 'Take it easy. Why do this?'"

Kris wheeled a newborn into the Capitol back in September. Hanson had a standing commitment to appear at a press conference featuring disability groups and doctors to highlight a House resolution condemning assisted suicide. He looked healthy, but in his opening remarks admitted that a recent seizure left him unable to read or speak at length. He yielded the floor to Kris.

"I'm thankful I didn't listen to those doctors," she said before adding, "If I had those suicide pills in my dark moments I might not be here today." Her voice somehow remained steady.

They stood behind Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R., Ohio), an Army lieutenant colonel who finished his stint as a combat surgeon just as Hanson deployed to Ramadi for his tour in Iraq. Although it is a state issue, the Washington, D.C., City Council brought Congress into the debate when it legalized the practice in 2016. The House voted to block the law in September. Wenstrup met Hanson over the summer, soon after the congressman saved the life of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise after a gunman opened fire on a Republican baseball practice. They focused particularly on the mixed messages assisted suicide sends to veterans: How can a country committed to halting the epidemic of military suicides also tell those in pain life's not worth living?

"J.J. showed us that in some way, shape, or form we all have something to offer," Wenstrup says. "His example and his actions may save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."

A slideshow of Hanson's life appears on a massive screen at the reception. Beneath it sits a table. There's a framed copy of the regional River Reporter on the table. The headline reads, "Livery Workers Save Canoeist." A 19-year-old Hanson sports a tanktop, backwards cap, and ambivalent, toothless smirk as if rescuing drowning boaters was routine. Maybe that was his first taste in what became an addiction. He needed the Marines to feed the habit.

River Reporter
Photo Credit: Bill McMorris

Gunnery Sergeant Don Turner wears dress blues to the reception and chats with four guys wearing Eagle, Globe, and Anchor lapel pins. He fought with Hanson in Ramadi at the onset of the surge in 2006 and 2007. He remembers his former executive officer as a "good Marine, very well-rounded, calm. He kept morale up." Turner made the 10-hour drive from Camp Lejeune. The trip was uneventful until his Hyundai slid off the road. He abandoned the car and hitched a ride to the reception with a passing vehicle.

When Hanson finished up with the Corps, he settled into politics. When he noticed that power did not equate to public service, he became a volunteer fireman, first in Sullivan County, then Ulster County where he took a job as budget director, then a brief stint in Florida just prior to the diagnosis.

In his final weeks, J.J. withered after developing intestinal complications. The neatly trimmed beard filled out, his cheekbones grew more prominent. John Lubrano, Hanson's best friend since the second grade, teammate on the Wilkes University football team, and Lucas's godfather, visited the family every weekend from Brooklyn. He describes Hanson as a disciplined man, the type to arrive early to every meeting, but that was cover for his expansive, if at times morbid, sense of humor. Lubrano recounts Hanson's recovery in New York City following his first surgery.

"His family comes into the room and he just starts speaking to them in German, trying to convince them his mind was stuck in German mode. The nurse told him to knock it off," he says. When Lubrano came over for a visit to Sloan Kettering he marveled at Hanson's high spirits, thinking the ordeal had passed. Hanson corrected him.

"J.J. said, 'Make no mistake: This will kill me, but I know where I'm going. I'm just worried about the rest of you guys," he says.

Photo courtesy of Kris Hanson
Photo courtesy of Kris Hanson

The sense of humor never left. Lubrano and a group of friends took the Hanson family to Henning's Local the Friday before his death. He maintained a strict diet in an effort to starve cancer cells, but with the end near, they ordered him the biggest steak on the menu.

"His coordination was so bad we had to help him eat. He finished and then you just see his mouth drop open, staring at Kris because she was eating so slow," Lubrano says.

Starting in November, Hanson's voice gave way as the brain scrambled. His speech became choppier. Missing verbs, prepositions. Hanson's mind still worked, but whatever connects thought to speech clicked sporadically before vanishing again. He did not speak so much as blurt. His friend Adam Bosch tells the reception of his last encounter with Hanson. He completed one sentence during the two-hour visit: "What can we do to help people?"

Hanson turned to Bosch, a journalism professor and cancer survivor, for advice after the initial scans. "I warned him that people would treat you like porcelain," he says.

Hanson wouldn't allow it. He ran muddy obstacle courses known as Spartan Races across New York, the family credo-turned-anti-cancer-rallying-cry "Can't Hurt Steel" painted onto his body. Three days after a chemo treatment in New York he drove to Ohio and completed a 14-mile trek through 35 obstacles with Lubrano.

"I had a hard time keeping up with him," he says.

John Lubano (L) & J.J. Hanson (C) prior to running the 14-mile Spartan Race just days after chemo treatment
John Lubrano (L) & J.J. Hanson (C) prior to running the 14-mile Spartan Race just days after chemo treatment

Hanson refused to withdraw during the closing months even as his physical capabilities deteriorated. In August he was breaking in a new crossbow to gear up for hunting season. In October, he attended the Jets-Pats game and heckled just as hard as the rest of the stadium when the NFL review team robbed Austin Sefarian Jenkins of a touchdown and handed New England the victory. By December his sense of balance vanished, but his stubbornness remained. He insisted on marching into the woods to witness the family cut down a Christmas tree. Friends trudged him through eight inches of snow. Friends and relatives read to James and Lucas at his bedside, but J.J. picked out the books.

His memory of those closest to him also appeared to remain in tact. He used to pray the rosary during his commutes with former boss Daniel French in St. Petersburg. When French visited Hanson for the last time, he was as bewildered as he was sympathetic to his friend's gesticulations until he saw the eyes staring fervently at a rosary. He prayed it aloud, J.J. following along.

Carey, the Compassion and Choices spokeswoman, sees no difference between Hanson's death and that of someone who dies by swallowing pills prescribed by a physician. Her organization just wants to expand options and increase autonomy of course. She insists Hanson died with dignity and that his death will remain possible under her preferred regime.

"Death with dignity does not just mean medical aid in dying," she says. "I firmly believe that people can die with dignity if they can die with a way that's consistent with their own beliefs."

Carey and her allies cast a wide umbrella, though I'm sure they'd stop short of calling a suicide bomber a "mechanical engineering aid in dying technician." What they really want is to tame the one thing outside our control. They do not want "death with dignity" so much as they do "death by appointment."

Hanson took a turn for the worse on Wednesday, December 27. Friends and relatives poured in to say their final goodbyes. Lubrano left Brooklyn in his 2000 Toyota Avalon with 243,000 miles on the odometer on Saturday. It snowed the entire drive up.

Hanson had been silent for four hours, the eyes growing increasingly dull. The fighting spirit was there early in the day—he struggled to hold onto Lucas as relatives removed the infant from the bed—but the body that had powered him through college football, Officer Candidate School, Iraq, and Spartan Runs betrayed him. His family began whispering, "It's okay to let go." Father Berkmans approached the bed. "J.J., God is ready for you," he said. Hanson raised his hands. He flashed two thumbs up.

Lubrano drove through the snow and ice. The wiper fluid drained. He kept driving. The windshield caked over. He said a prayer. He rounded a corner and there was sun. And the light melted away the ice and snow that blinded him. He entered the house and found Hanson alive in bed. Lubrano crouched at his friend's side for 10 minutes until he noticed his breathing slow.

Hanson died 20 minutes later. It was December 30, 2017, and the punctual activist was 3 years, 3 months, and 18 days late for an appointment.

R-L Lucas Hanson, Kayla Klufas, Kris Hanson, James Hanson, and Nicholas Klufas
R-L Lucas Hanson, Kayla Klufas, Kris Hanson, James Hanson, and Nicholas Klufas / Photo Credit: Dayelle Stampfli Emma West Photography


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