VOICING CONCERNS

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Matt McClain

Legendary NPR host Diane Rehm discusses a matter of life and death.

Since the very beginning, Diane Rehm has fought to have her voice heard. Whether considering her childhood growing up in a strict Eastern Orthodox Christian household, or her extremely late start in radio, or the neurological condition that has stricken her vocal chords, Rehm’s distinguished broadcasting career has been nothing if not improbable. Now as she prepares to sign off for the final time later this year, Diane Rehm will share her voice with audiences at the Nantucket Book Festival. But what she has to say might be hard for some people to hear.

Voice of the VoicelessOn Saturday, June 18th, Rehm will discuss her latest book, On My Own, which details her late husband’s painful battle with Parkinson’s. When the disease took total control of John Rehm’s life two years ago, he sought out his doctor’s help in bringing an end to his suffering by way of assisted suicide. The doctor denied his request. Left with no other dignified options, Mr. Rehm proceeded to starve himself to death. It took ten days, every one of which his wife was by his side.

Today, Diane Rehm has made it her mission to bring awareness to the right to die, a right her husband so desperately wanted. “I think too many people do not discuss the issue of what they want at the end [of their life] until it’s too late,” Rehm told me from her home in Washington, D.C. “What I am hoping people will do is use my book as a means to open the discussion with their parents, with their children, at whatever time they deem appropriate.”

Not surprisingly, the right to die is a polarizing topic. “I think the whole country is death-averse,” Rehm said. “We really don’t want to talk about death, even though it’s inevitable for each and every single one of us.” Rehm insists that she is not trying to sway people toward the merits of assisted suicide, or to debate those who believe strictly in a natural death or any other end of life decisions. Rather, she only wants to spur on the conversation and educate people on their options. “That’s what’s driving me now,” she says.

If anyone can push this difficult topic into the national discourse, it’s Diane Rehm. Over the past four decades, audiences have listened to her deftly interview presidents, policy makers and performers, all without a college diploma or any formal education in broadcasting. At the age of thirty-seven, Rehm started volunteering at a public radio station in Washington, D.C. “I just kept on keeping on, never ever believing that it would have turned out this way,” she said.

Today, The Diane Rehm Show can be heard on more than 150 radio stations across the country, earning her a slew of awards, including a Peabody and the National Humanities Medal bestowed on her by President Obama.

However, as her career on National Public Radio began to take off in the nineties, Rehm’s most valuable asset — her voice — came under attack by a neurological condition that made speaking extremely difficult. But instead of driving her off the air, the condition made her voice one of the most recognizable on the airwaves and actually expanded her audience. Today she has more than two million listeners around the world. “It’s not like the other very smooth NPR voices,” she says. “I thought it was going to be the end of me, but instead it’s allowed me to continue for a very long time.”

Interestingly enough, of the thousands of interviews she’s conducted, one person in particular stands at the top for Diane Rehm: former Nantucket summer resident Fred Rogers. “He had a sense like nobody I’d ever met before of the fullness of what it is to be a human,” Rehm said of Rogers. “I got to talk to him just before he died.” Now as Rehm plans her maiden voyage to Nantucket for the Book Festival, she’s penciling in some time to visit Mr. Rogers’s old house in Madaket. “I will certainly make that story known while I’m out there.”

Diane Rehm will be speaking with WCAI’s Mindy Todd about her book, On My Own, on Saturday June 18th at 4 P.M. at the Unitarian Meeting House Sanctuary.

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