End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Merla Zellerbach’s Labors Of Loveby Jay

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By Susan Moldaw
Nob Hill Gazette
April 2012

On April 26th, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation will honor Merla Zellerbach as the foundation’s 2012 Champion of Hope Community Leader. We met with Merla recently to find out what motivated this woman, whom philanthropist Roselyne “Cissie” Swig says “has spent years doing good works for friends and the community, often in understated ways.”

Nob Hill Gazette: Tell us about your involvement with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

Merla Zellerbach: My friend at the foundation, Tamara Block, called one day and asked me if I had any suggestions about whom they could honor at their annual gala. I immediately thought of my wonderful gastroenterologist, Dr. James Ostroff.

I first met him in 2007. I had dropped 16 pounds, weighed 98 pounds, and had no appetite. He treated me for colitis and saved my life.

Tamara called again to say they’d taken my suggestion to celebrate Dr. Ostroff—and also me, for being a successful patient and for my work with Compassion & Choices.

NHG: Compassion & Choices is dear to your heart. Can you tell us what drew you to that organization?

MZ: I experienced two very different deaths of loved ones in my life. The first was my father, who was a rabbi. I remember walking around Lake Tahoe with him as a girl. He looked up at the stars and the sky and marveled, “And some people don’t believe in God!” Later, when he was dying a horrible death from pancreatic cancer, I asked him if he still believed in God. He said, “Yes, but all I ever wanted was a merciful death, and I don’t understand why I’m not getting it.”

When my late husband, Fred Goerner, was dying of abdominal cancer, both arms had become paralyzed, and he didn’t want to end his life in a vegetative state. He begged his doctor for medication to terminate his life, and the doctor complied. He was saved months, possibly years, of misery.

NHG: Compassion & Choices sponsors legislation for full and compassionate options at the end-of-life, including California’s Right to Know Act of 2009. What are some other important legislative initiatives?

MZ: While we are not currently sponsoring any legislation in California, one of our goals is to make sure mentally competent, terminally ill individuals have open access to a full range of end-of-life choices, including aid in dying. The states where this is already legal have found that a high percentage of people who get the medication don’t take it. Just knowing that they have the option is a support.

NHG: Do you find that most people would prefer not to talk about the end-of-life?

MZ: On the contrary, people are fascinated, and they want to learn more. Death is in the back of their minds, and there is concern. Many people don’t have advance care directives—everyone should have them.

Dynamic community activists Carol Doll, Gretchen de Baubigny, Lisa Goldman, Helen Hilton Raiser and  Mary Poland are co-chairing an event for Compassion & Choices later in the year. The support of these forceful, influential women is a sign that end-of-life choice is no longer on the fringes, but is in the mainstream, where it belongs.

NHG: How do you counter critics who believe that life is sacred at all costs and should be preserved?

MZ: We believe that decision should be up to the individual. Compassion & Choices is all about choice. We have trained counselors to help the terminally ill understand that there is an out—they don’t have to suffer. In the states where doctor-prescribed medication at the end-of-life is legal, there are plenty of safeguards to prevent misuse.

NHG: You are the author of light, entertaining mysteries and romances, and you write columns chronicling high society’s comings and goings. How do you go from these endeavors to your work with charitable causes that confront society’s most weighty issues?

MZ: I’ve always been involved in some sort of charity work—that’s where my heart is. Life is short. You wake up one morning and ask yourself, “Where did all the years go? Did I do any good in my life?” If you can answer yes, you feel good about it and don’t mind the fact you won’t always be around.

Susan Moldaw graduated from Wesleyan University and recently completed a Masters in Gerontology. She’s currently working in the field of spiritual care. Her byline has appeared in Narrative Magazine. She is waiting for her unpublished first novel to be discovered.