End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

Part of Something Biggerby Sonja

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Emily Bentley, campaign manager for Compassion & Choices Montana, loves working in politics. “I like the process, and I believe in democracy. I like impacting the world for the better. In America we’ve made social change for the good, over the last 50 years particularly, and I want to be part of that kind of change.”

“And I like winning.” Emily was a competitive rower in college. “My mom and dad were both rowers on the national team,” she says. “We’re a big rowing family.”

The issue of end-of-life choice struck close to home last year, when Emily was nine months pregnant. Across the country in Boston, her father a sudden cardiac arrest while riding a bicycle. He was unconscious with no heart beat when he was found on the side of the road, and remained in a coma for three weeks. “It was really hard for me not being able to fly back and be with him. That was the first time I started thinking about the circle of life,” she says. Her father had spoken with her mother about his wishes. “But I didn’t know, and it got me thinking about my wishes. Thinking about the baby, making sure we have a will and everything.”

Emily’s father pulled out of the coma (and is now fully recovered). His wife was able to see and speak to him in the hospital, before flying across the country to be with Emily for the delivery. Emily and her husband Blake are now the proud parents of a 14-month old boy, Jamey.

“When you have kids, the long term suddenly is much more important. Life after Jamey was born became so valuable. I started to think about all these things, like: If I were terminally ill, would I want my son to remember me in a hospital bed or remember me when I was healthy? I talked with my husband about what choices I want when I reach the end of my life, and about his choices.”

Emily jumped into the role of campaign manager for Compassion & Choices Montana just a year ago. In that short time, she helped score one of the movement’s biggest victories: defeating a bill to outlaw death with dignity. HB 505, the “Physician Imprisonment Act” proposed prison terms of up to ten years for any doctor who granted a terminally ill, mentally competent patient’s request for a prescription for life-ending medication.

During the legislative session Emily coordinated the work of supportive Montana doctors in writing an open letter, calling on the legislature to reject HB 505, published around the state. Dr. Eric Kress was one of those doctors, and he was clearly feeding on the energy generated by his increased activism. Emily met Kress at his office and asked him to take a bold step, to be the first Montana doctor to openly declare he had provided patients aid in dying. Kress agreed. He would speak in radio ads and testify at an approaching hearing before a key Senate committee so people could hear the voice of a doctor the legislature was proposing to criminalize. “When I left Dr. Kress’ office that day, I knew I was part of something bigger. I left knowing: This is a game-changer.”

Dr. Kress got national attention for his open defense of his patients’ rights. And the tide turned against the bill. On April 15, the bill failed the Senate vote 27 – 23.

Knowing the right to aid in dying was, for this session, safe from legislative attacks, Emily continued organizing events around the state, building support and educating Montanans, with the Montana executive council and other activists. “The people I work with are great,” Emily says. “Amy Hetzler, Dr. Kress, Dr. Stephen Speckart, Dr. Pam Hiebert, Maren Keener, Ron and Mignon Waterman, Mark Connell, Roberta King, Doris Fischer, Senator Dick Barrett, Representative Doc Moore. They’re smart and they work hard, and I just love being surrounded by people like that. And I love the volunteers that come to testify. Sometimes I find myself surrounded only with people my age. This job gets me out of that. I really appreciate working with baby boomers and their parents. When I hear their stories, I just want to help them. And a lot of people come at this issue from a libertarian perspective. I like that.”

Emily’s political background prepared her well for this role. She and National Field and Political Director Jess Grennan served together on the board of grassroots organization Forward Montana, well before Jess recruited her for Compassion & Choices. Now she’s hoping her neighbors in Ward Three will send her to elected office in the Missoula City Council, and she proudly notes her work for Compassion & Choices in her official campaign biography. You can read more about Emily’s campaign here.

Emily’s activism is all founded on a simple desire: “I want to leave this place better than I found it for my son — for all of our children.”