The original article was published May 20, 2016 in La Opinión, the leading Spanish-language daily newspaper in the United States.
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It has been nine years since my brother’s horrific death to renal cancer. Yet some members of my family still refuse to talk about his agonizing ordeal.
This is not a surprise for a Catholic Latino family from the South Texas-Mexico border who refuses to break the cultural taboo of talking about death.
Aren’t we the culture known for honoring our departed at the cemetery with their favorite foods and drinks? Yes. But when the time comes to talk about this natural process and how to prepare for it, Latinos, like most communities of color, simply shut down.
My family is not alone. End-of-life conversations are not the topic of choice for Latinos, a community that often has the highest rates of illness, yet one least likely to complete advance directives or discuss medical interventions with loved ones.
Latinos, the fastest growing minority in the United States, are also less likely than whites to use hospice, although there is evidence that the need for services may actually be greater, according to a report published by the American Hospice Association.
But these disparities that impact the Latino community are something we can control, by communicating with our doctors about whether we would want to be kept alive with aggressive treatments if we become too sick to speak for ourselves.
Compassion & Choices offers a variety of tools to help everyone manage their end-of-life care.
It’s important to know that our doctors, nurses, social workers, aides and chaplains are here to serve us to make sure we get the care we want. And while they can give us recommendations and options for a care plan, we, along with our family and loved ones, are the only ones who can decide the way we want to die.
We also have the option to choose hospice, which involves team-oriented medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support for terminally ill individuals and their loved ones.
Palliative care is routinely offered to individuals dealing with pain, but it is an especially critical component in end-of-life care.
We also have the option to decline further medical care that might only extend our dying process.
Finally, some people may decide that they have had enough, and they want to avoid the pain and suffering associated with a prolonged death.
There are several options for a peaceful death, and five states — California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — -authorize the full range of options for individuals with a terminal illness and a prognosis of six months or less to live, including hospice, palliative care and medical aid in dying.
Latinos are unique. But we are no different than anyone else at the end of life. We are all going to die, although it may not always be the way we want to.
I recently traveled to Puerto Rico to meet Miguel Carrasquillo, a 35-year-old Catholic chef from Chicago who is suffering from horrific headaches, electric shocks and blindness from incurable brain cancer that has spread to his liver, stomach, testicles and other vital organs.
Miguel recorded a video for Compassion & Choices. His last wish is to take medication to peacefully end his suffering so he can take his last breath holding his mother’s hand, an option not legally authorized in his home state of Illinois or in Puerto Rico, where his parents are caring for him.
Miguel held back tears and made a public plea for legislators nationwide to support medical aid-in-dying laws throughout the United States. He urged Latinos to speak up about their end-of-life decisions.
Miguel’s final message about end-of-life options was similar to the one made by Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old California woman with an incurable brain tumor who moved to Oregon in 2014 to access its Death With Dignity Act. Her plea started a national conversation about medical aid in dying – one that inspired the passage of the End of Life Option Act in California and the introduction of similar legislation in at least two dozen other states.
Miguel hopes to have a similar impact inspiring Latinos to advocate for aid-in-dying laws. And in some way he is.
*The original article was published in La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the United States on May 20.
Patricia A. González-Portillo is the national Latino communications manager and former California campaign communications director for Compassion & Choices. She is a past journalist for La Opinión [Los Angeles] , The [Riverside, CA] Press-Enterprise and The Brownsville [Texas] Herald.