End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Access to Aid in Dying Brings Peace of Mindby Jay

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Compassion & Choices of Washington, a nonprofit organization that advocates excellent, patient-centered end-of-life care and stewards Washington’s Death With Dignity Act (DWDA), today responded to the state’s report on its third year of experience with the DWDA. “The report shows patients benefit from the peace of mind and comfort the law provides,” said Robb Miller, the group’s executive director. “The reports required under the DWDA confirm the safety of aid in dying. The law is working as intended and with no unintended consequences.”

The number of written requests, filed with the state under the provisions of the Act, rose only slightly, from 95 in 2010 to 103 in 2011. The number who self-administered medication to achieve a peaceful death in 2011 was 70. Of all the Washingtonians who died in 2011, those who self-administered life-ending medication obtained under the law represent only about 1 in 500.

“Some people get a prescription and don’t take the medication for weeks or months, and 32 percent of those who acquired it didn’t take it,” said Miller. “Opponents of the law claimed that patients who acquired life-ending medication would use it prematurely. The report shows just the opposite. Patients frequently say that the peace of mind and control they gain makes it easier to live out their remaining days.”

Dr. Richard Wesley is a retired pulmonologist and intensive care specialist in Seattle, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Dr. Wesley requested aid in dying last year, but has not yet decided if he will use the medication. “I want to live as long as I possibly can, providing I still have quality of life,” said Dr. Wesley. “Both the ALS Association and hospice are helping me to do so. At the same time, when life is no longer enjoyable and only suffering remains, I want to go quickly and peacefully. As a physician, I have witnessed many slow and painful deaths. I don’t want to go that way.”

The number of patients who got prescriptions after completing a psychiatric or psychological evaluation increased from three to five; there may have been more who were evaluated that did not qualify. The state’s statistics are based on information reported only after doctors agree to provide aid in dying, so there is no way to know how many people requested a prescription and, for any reason, did not complete the process.

Meg Holmes of Seattle, after an almost two-year journey with brain cancer, was able to die last year in the loving company of her brother, sister, son, daughter and her husband, Andrew Taylor. “Meg used our Death With Dignity Act to hasten her death,” Taylor said. “This allowed her to die in the company of her family, while she was still able to converse with and understand them. Meg died peacefully and quickly, with no signs of discomfort. It was a remarkable goodbye and released Meg from what we all knew could well be a long, distressing, and undignified end.” Compassion & Choices of Washington provides expert consultation, advice, information and emotional support for patients and families facing the end of life, and if requested, a personal presence at the time of death. To request their client services call 877-222-2816 toll-free. Compassion & Choices of Washington also provides information and medical expertise to participating physicians and other medical providers. All services are free of charge, and confidentiality is strictly protected.