Bill Rodgers shared his story in April of 2023.
Eight days before my wife passed on, she told me she wanted the struggle to end. She really wanted to use medical aid in dying, which in Arizona was absolutely not possible. We don’t have it. I had expected hospice to keep her comfortable through the final days, but I watched helplessly as my wife moaned loudly and lay unmoving with her head rolled to the side. One day I called hospice nurses to our home four times to try to find a way to alleviate her suffering, but they couldn’t make Joanne anywhere near comfortable.
It was such an undignified, inhumane ending for a beautiful lady who was never seen not looking perfect. After three especially terrible days she passed away at 4:25 p.m. on February 6, 2023. Those last days of suffering destroyed me; I turned toward Joanne’s bed and promised I would do everything I could to work toward getting medical aid in dying in Arizona.
Joanne was a dignified and private person who prided herself in always looking her best. Even until her last few weeks, at her behest I would lift her out of bed and into her wheelchair, and roll her into the bathroom to do her hair and makeup. We’d then spend the rest of the day on the sofa, just she and I at home. It was never out of vanity; that’s just the way she wanted to live.
Joanne and I met on Labor Day 1969. Having just returned from summer vacation, I thought: It’s pretty darn lonely. I should get married one of these days. Lo and behold, I saw Joanne at my apartment complex’s swimming pool, sat down by her and struck up a conversation. My opening line was: “Too bad your husband has to work today.” To which Joanne replied, “Well, I don’t have a husband.” We were married in December that year. We decided very quickly that it was meant to be, and it lasted 53 years.
During the end of 2021, Joanne started experiencing extreme fatigue and weakness. It turned out it was severe anemia, which led to ultimately finding out that it was cancer in July 2022. She had a large malignant growth in her colon, and the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes. The oncologist suggested surgery but warned that at 78 and being seriously anemic there was a chance Joanne would not recover. She didn’t feel comfortable moving forward and sought a second opinion from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Joanne had spent much of her life in Minnesota and had received care at the Mayo Clinic for endometrial cancer in 2012. She was happy with the care they had provided and trusted them. We rented an apartment, packed up our bags and flew to Minnesota in early September. The Mayo Clinic ran numerous tests, and when the surgeon met with us, she shared that the tumor was even bigger than it was in July. She proposed a treatment plan of back-to-back surgery and chemo, but also stated that recovery was questionable. The cancer was so advanced that treatment would likely have ended any quality of life Joanne had.
Joanne worried that if she pursued treatment she would never have another good day in her life. She felt mostly good at the time, and in lieu of treatment she decided to live out the remainder of her life as best she could.
We decided to stay in Minnesota to enjoy the beautiful fall. Joanne had grown up in Duluth, Minnesota, and had developed a lifelong passion for nature and the outdoors. We raised our family in Minnesota and enjoyed much of our time hiking, biking and camping. When we first retired we moved to a small town in northern Minnesota on Pelican Lake. It was like living in a wildlife sanctuary; we had feeders and enjoyed seeing migratory birds stop in the spring and fall. One Christmas Joanne decided we should only make gifts, not buy them, so she sewed a fantastic black-and-red fleece “Paul Bunyan” shirt for me. I gave her a wood duck house I built, and it attracted mating wood ducks every year we lived on our secluded bay on Pelican Lake. Joanne loved watching our tenants as they nested and subsequently hatched eggs to create new critters for nature each spring. She relished the wonders of nature, and spent much of September and October 2022 enjoying walks through parks and by the Mississippi Riverwalk.
But the third week of October, Joanne became very sick. We went to the ER at Mayo Clinic and were told she maybe had a week left to live. They put Joanne in the palliative care unit of the hospital and started her on an assortment of medications to help make her comfortable. Midway through the week, though, she started walking around and said she wanted to return home to Arizona.
Instead of her passing away, seven days later, on Halloween, we got on a plane to fly back home. The following day, hospice met with us. I was filled with hope, thinking that hospice would be able to keep Joanne sufficiently comfortable and help her pass peacefully. We didn’t have medical aid in dying in Arizona, but now with hospice involved, I thought things were going to be OK.
After hospice left our home, Joanne said, “Now that that’s taken care of, we should get this house decorated. I haven’t been able to do that, and I have some ideas of what I want to do.” Her bedroom plan required some sewing, so we bought yards of fabric and she asked me to set up her sewing machine by the window. She made pillow covers, a bedspread and window coverings. She wasn’t ready to die. She had things to do. Now that there was a plan in place and Joanne had survived the week that she wasn’t expecting to survive, she was ready to spend her last months making our home just the way she wanted it to be.
Joanne was strong and determined, and chose to live as good a life as possible as long as possible. In December, when her legs could not support her to stand or walk, she used a wheelchair to continue going. She became confined to her bed in mid-January, and on January 29 she shared that she had endured all the suffering that she could withstand.
The following days were a rapid decline. She was in constant agony, struggling for every breath, moaning loudly. It went for hours. Hospice nurses said this is common and she does not know she is doing it, yet they also said she has her sense of hearing to the end and hears everything we say. No matter what hospice did, Joanne’s suffering was relentless. I was beside myself. Her final three days, she was mostly unconscious — but as our son and I were by her bed Sunday morning, she pleaded, “Help me, please help me.” It was devastating. That told me that she was in there, aware of her pain, waiting desperately for the end.
Joanne should not have been required to endure those last eight days. She did what she could to continue living, and she didn’t want to give up early. But she had gone as far as she could.
When death is approaching, each person deserves the right to meet it on their own terms. If we had medical aid in dying available, we would have requested the prescription by December when it became clear her decline was speeding up. We could have had a quiet, peaceful kiss and hug goodbye, and her life could have ended gently.
My beautiful wife passed away the next day. My grief has been tempered by the fact that I didn’t want her to suffer one more minute. It was just so terrible. It was such a relief when she took her last breath and had everlasting peace. Finally, her suffering had ended.