End-of-Life Choice, Death with Dignity, Palliative Care and Counseling

Posts TaggedAid in Dying

Dedicated to a Cause

by Barbara Coombs Lee
March 26, 2013

Last Wednesday, March 20, the Connecticut Assembly’s Public Health Committee began its consideration of a bill modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. What a day! In my 22 years of legislative work, this hearing was the most grueling — and the most inspiring — I have ever witnessed.  Compassion & Choices volunteers and supporters showed themselves to be as passionate, judicious, intelligent and dedicated as citizens can ever be. They are committed to a world of justice and mercy. And they trust in democracy to make it so.

They came because they want choice and control in their own mortal endings. But mostly, they came for others who could not — their neighbors and loved ones and people unknown to them. They came that others need not suffer against their will, and that all may have the opportunity to face death in comfort and peace of mind. My heart swelled as I sat with them and heard the witness of these decent, altruistic, dedicated people.

The day began early, as aid-in-dying supporters travelled hours to Hartford by bus, car and train to be in line by 7:00 am.  Sign-up began at 9, but being in line by 7 helped ensure an opportunity to speak. The hearing began at 10 and our bill, Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients (HB 6645), came up about noon. Representative Betsy Ritter, the bill’s chief sponsor, spoke with eloquence and authority. Other legislators followed, and then the committee shifted gears and heard unrelated bills.

For many hours our supporters kept each other’s spirits up as they sat patiently through testimony about nursing technicians, dental hygienists, something called advance practice collaboration agreements, and tattoo artist licensure.

Some of our valiant and dedicated supporters just had to leave when their bus departed or their backs gave out. But others stayed until 1 am for their chance to speak. Yes, you read that right — they endured this process from 7 am until 1 am without complaint!!

Here are a just few of the heroes:

Shannon Sanford, a Yale-educated nurse who did her masters thesis on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.  “Compassion & Choices were great to me when I was working on my thesis.  I can stay to the bitter end,” she told us. She had to, attending the entire 15-hour hearing as the last person to testify at approximately 1:30 am.

It fell to Shannon to present the committee with letters from all over the state. The stack was nearly a foot high, making a thump on the table.

Placing her hand on this tower of paper, Shannon said:  “I brought my friends who are all in support of House Bill 6645”.  A legislator asked, “I have to know, how many people signed letters?”  Shannon had a snappy response despite sitting 15 hours in a hearing room:  “I stopped counting after 1500.”

Hunt Williams traveled over an hour to the state Capitol and waited twelve more to tell his story.

Hunt told the committee the story of his manslaughter arrest for merely cleaning a weapon his terminally ill friend, John Welles, used when he was dying of cancer. Only due to the overwhelming support and advocacy in his community of Cornwall, Connecticut, was Hunt sentenced to accelerated rehabilitation, a process that took over a year. The committee and the entire room sat in complete silence as they listened to Hunt’s riveting experience.

“Thank you sir, thank you for giving testimony.  I think I was taken aback by what you had to say,” a stunned co-chair of the committee, Senator Terry Gerratana, said.

Gloria Blick, aged 91, is a passionate advocate for end-of-life choice, as is her son Dr. Gary Blick.

When called to testify, Gloria and Dr. Blick held hands and both walked confidently to the microphone and sat together supporting each other.  Luckily, Gloria has not had a significant illness, but with her active volunteerism in the senior community, she has witnessed first-hand the pain and suffering of those at end of life, and it disturbs her greatly.

She made it clear to the committee she had been too active and too well to see her life end in a slow, relentless spiral of deterioration. Nor would she want her family, including Dr. Blick, to suffer unnecessarily with her.  “I would never want to do that to my son,” she said.

Lillian Kaplan sat for hours waiting for her opportunity to speak out in favor of HB 6645, offering moving testimony regarding the difficult and painful death of her son-in-law Steven Kahn, who wanted to die on his own terms.  Lillian read into testimony a letter Steven wrote prior to his death.

“I am writing to you so you will not have to wonder…I’m not asking for your approval, only that you honor my judgment,” he wrote.

At the conclusion of her testimony, the Senate Chair of the Committee respectfully asked her age:  “Well, in a year and a half I will be 100.”

Lillian, Gloria, Gary and Shannon and so many others showed themselves to be amazing and inspiring advocates. It is an honor to be able to work beside them for choice and control at life’s end.

Right to Die: Comforting Control at the End of the Line

by Ilene Kaplan
Hartford Courant
January 11, 2013

Personal freedom, a core value among all Americans, means control of our lives at all times. We cherish and protect personal choice. After a lifetime exercising this freedom, people should not be denied control when excruciating illness is poised to claim their body.

Terminally ill patients want control at the end of their life, just as they’ve always controlled their other health decisions. They want assurance that if suffering and indignity make living unbearable, they have the means to peacefully end it.

Legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly that would allow a physician to prescribe medication to a mentally competent, terminally ill patient who can self-administer the medication to bring about a peaceful death. I hope, after appropriate debate, such a bill will be passed. It is time we give grown-ups the freedom to choose and let physicians willing to provide this choice feel safe in doing so. Connecticut needs a rational public policy for every end-of-life option.

In states where it is legal, aid in dying provides great comfort not only for the very few who actually use it, but for many others in just knowing the choice exists. For patients staring an unbearable death in the face — and those close to them witnessing this anguished decline — the option to end their suffering in a peaceful way is an enormous comfort. It is not for the government or anyone else to say that is wrong. More

Aid-in-Dying Supporters Vow to Help Hawaii’s Terminally Ill

by Lara Yamada
November 12, 2012

“In the end of February, it was discovered I had kidney cancer,” said hospice care worker Dorothy Haden, who has stage four cancer.

“I tried to live my life with dignity, and I do want to end my life with dignity,” said former lawmaker Earnest Juggie Heen, who has liver and pancreatic cancer.

Both said they want to choose how and when they end their lives.

“It’s our position that aid in dying is legal and it can be incorporated into medical practice legitimately here in Hawaii,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, who is the president of Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit organization that supports aid in dying. She returned to Hawaii in early November, one year after a small group of Hawaii doctors first prescribed life-ending medication to a terminally ill patient.

“Hawaii has a constellation of laws that have never really criminalized aid in dying,” she said.

She said in the past year, 31 people have inquired about aid in dying, seven qualified to receive medication, and four were actually prescribed it, but she said all four died of natural causes before taking that prescription.

“People just want the comfort. They just want peace of mind,” she told KITV4 reporter Lara Yamada. More

Happy Endings: In Real Life, Mystery Writer Promotes Assisted Death

by Elihu Blotnick
Stanford Magazine
November 8, 2012

At 82, Merla Zellerbach has been reborn as a mystery writer. Her earlier novels paint psychological portraits. The Hallie Marsh Mystery Series, however, reflects the Bay Area author’s present concern: the injustices of death.

“I’m just getting started; I feel fit and fabulous. I can never lie about my age,” she says with a laugh. “I was born here, educated here and still see too many of my old school chums from Stanford.”

Zellerbach’s Marsh—the heroine of three novels so far—becomes an accidental detective after breast cancer changes the course of her life. Surrounded by medical expertise and malfeasance, she evolves novel by novel, as the mystery within begins to reflect the mystery without. Zellerbach, ’52, writes with wry wit and a breezy style. She sets her plots in the Bay Area and keeps the reader absorbed with recognizable character types and local color. More

Massachusetts Vote May Change How the Nation Dies

by Lewis M. Cohen
October 29, 2012

This Election Day, Massachusetts is poised to approve the Death With Dignity Act. “Death with dignity” is a modernized, sanitized, politically palatable term that replaces the now-antiquated expression “physician-assisted suicide.” Four polls conducted in the past couple of months have shown strong support for the ballot question, although a well-funded media blitz by the opposition is kicking in during the final several weeks and may influence voter opinions.

Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act has been in effect for the past 14 years, and the state of Washington followed suit with a similar law in 2008. Despite concerns of skeptics, the sky has not fallen; civilization in the Northwest remains intact; the poor, disenfranchised, elderly, and vulnerable have not been victimized; and Oregon has become a leader in the provision of excellent palliative medicine services.

But the Massachusetts ballot question has the potential to turn death with dignity from a legislative experiment into the new national norm. The state is the home of America’s leading medical publication (the New England Journal of Medicine), hospital (Massachusetts General), and four medical schools (Harvard, Boston University, University of Massachusetts, and Tufts).  Passage of the law would represent a crucial milestone for the death with dignity movement, especially since 42 percent of the state is Catholic and the church hierarchy vehemently opposes assisted dying. Vermont and New Jersey are already entertaining similar legislature, and if the act passes in Massachusetts, other states that have previously had unsuccessful campaigns will certainly be emboldened to revisit this subject. More