Dying Well – Part II

By Jerri Haaven
Certified Grief Recovery Specialist & Celebrant

Dying Well II

Last month I blogged about an “Opinionator” piece in The New York Times written by Ira Byock, a well-known and respected palliative care physician, titled Dying Shouldn’t Be So Brutal.”  Dr. Byock is a staunch supporter of ensuring that terminal patients are provided needed care, which includes reducing unnecessary hospital stays and instead providing patients with palliative and hospice care, where treatment is mostly about keeping the patient “comfortable.”

You can read Dying Well - Part I by clicking here.

Palliative care as the only alternative?

However, he stated his opposition to a method of physician-assisted suicide where a patient who has been diagnosed with less than six months to live can seek aid in dying from her physician, as was the case with Brittany Maynard. After being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer at the age of 28, and after conventional treatment and surgery failed, Maynard was told she had less than six months to live. The effects of her illness were horrific. Seizures, crushing headaches, vomiting, loss of full brain function and being completely bedridden was not how she wanted to live her remaining days. She moved to Oregon, one of the few states that have enacted the Death with Dignity Act, and ended her suffering on her own terms surrounded by her close family in 2014.

Barbara Coombs Lee, a co-author of the Oregon Death With Dignity Act and president of Compassion & Choices, wrote an “Opinionator” on March 18, 2015 in the New York Times about an early pioneer of the Death with Dignity Act. Senator Frank Roberts of Oregon sponsored one of the nation’s first death-with-dignity bills nearly two decades ago. Prostrate cancer and subsequent radiation treatments had damaged his spinal cord, and he was forced into a wheelchair. Facing certain death, he set out on a mission to bring legislation to the Senate floor where people in a similar situation could be provided with aid in dying care or with assisted suicide so that they would no longer have to suffer an indignant death.

Legislation failed, and Roberts died in 1993 after being bedridden for weeks and drifting in and out of consciousness. In the end, he suffered the prolonged deterioration he had hoped to help Oregonians avoid.

"Right to die" - a slippery slope?

Advocates for the “right to die” are frequently heard saying that we treat our sick animals better than we do humans. As a pet owner, I once had to make the humane decision to bring my beloved “Bear” to the veterinarian after it was apparent to me that her quality of life was poor and that she was suffering. I held her as we administered the lethal dose of medicine that would put her to sleep, and she died in my arms knowing she was fully loved. The reality was I loved her enough to let her go and end her suffering.

Those who are opposed to the “right to die” act say that this law puts the vulnerable at risk, and that we are on the slippery slope of ethics. However, Barbara Coombs Lee argues the facts just don’t support the claim:

Claims of harm to vulnerable people and the institution of medicine simply do not hold up in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont provide the combined experience of 30 years of states’ authorizing medical aid in dying. In all that data is not one episode of an unqualified, nonvoluntary or otherwise inappropriate assisted death.

In reading the comments posted by people who had read Coombs Lee’s article, one person wondered - with all of the legally obtainable drugs that are already on the market - why doesn’t someone just take an overdose of one of those drugs and not involve anyone else. For a minute, I thought maybe he had a point.

Then I realized that would be considered an act of suicide. Depending on where you live anywhere in the world, it could be illegal, and could cause a number of legal implications. In my home state of Minnesota, aiding or abetting in suicide can result in significant legal consequences. Thus the “aid in dying” act empowers and protects not only those who want to die on their own terms legally and with dignity, but it also protects anyone involved in letting them cross to the other side.

Long before deciding on the type of cremation urn, consider this.

The significance of providing someone the choice to die with dignity cannot be undervalued. Anyone who has witnessed the extremely slow and prolonged deterioration of a loved one dying when his dignity lessens with each loss of function can attest to the deep sadness and pain when a life ends in such a way. Coombs Lee states that:

The American legislative process failed Frank Roberts, but it will not fail everyone, forever. Baby boomers who see their parents die hard are vowing it will be different for others they love, and for themselves. Young people are educated and energized and joining a movement they once thought did not concern them. Consumers are applying the lessons of the natural birthing and AIDS movements: Dramatic change to empower patients must start with them.

Long before one decides whether or not to be cremated, what type of cremation urn or ash scattering ceremony to have, perhaps consider all of the implications of existing laws and how those laws might influence what can – or cannot – be done.

Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.

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