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Terminally Ill People of Color Need Option of Medical Aid in Dying

Photo: Patricia A. González-Portillo and her brother, Dr. Victor M. Gonzalez Jr., who died June 13, 2007.

By Patricia A. González-Portillo

My brother Victor could not hold a fork, talk or walk, by the time his renal cancer had metastasized to his brain.

For almost two years, he endured tubes, needles and agony that his 32-year career as a doctor never prepared him for.

It broke my heart to see my oldest brother, once a handsome and brilliant physician, become emaciated, suffering from unbearable pain that the hospice team that he once directed in South Texas could not alleviate.

We prayed for a miracle.

But Victor was dying in a very tortuous way.

“There is nothing medicine can do for me now,” he whispered to me. “Please understand what I am going through.”

I heard similar stories throughout Compassion & Choices’ campaign last year that led to the historic passage of California’s End of Life Option Act. When the law takes effect on June 9, it will give terminally ill adults the option to get prescription medication they can decide to take if their suffering becomes intolerable in the final stages of a deadly disease.

Unfortunately, the California law won’t help Miguel Carrasquillo, a 35-year-old chef from Chicago who is suffering from an incurable brain tumor.

Miguel’s story hit particularly close to home for me because we both are Catholic Latinos.

I recently traveled to Puerto Rico, where Miguel’s parents are caring for him, to videotape his story for Compassion & Choices. He made a plea for legislators nationwide to support medical aid-in-dying laws throughout the United States.

Miguel spoke of his last wish to ingest medication to peacefully end his suffering, so he could take his last breath holding his mother’s hand in the modest home he rents about 30 miles from San Juan.

Medical aid in dying is not a legally authorized option in Miguel’s home state of Illinois or Puerto Rico.

Miguel talked about his request that his fellow Latinos speak to their doctors so they will honor their patients’ end-of-life wishes, whether they agree with them or not. He urged Latinos to drop our cultural taboo of discussing death and medical aid in dying. He encouraged our brothers and sisters in Christ to stop referring to aid in dying as a sin.

I held back tears as Miguel spoke about the horrific headaches, electric shocks and blindness from the brain cancer that has spread to his liver, stomach, testicles, and other vital organs.

His words brought flashbacks of my brother Victor and the wrenching emotional pain I felt watching him suffer from the cancer that metastasized to his brain.

I took a pause and collected myself as Miguel experienced a series of electric shocks that forced us to stop our taping for the day.

Miguel smiled proudly when he learned he would become Compassion & Choices first terminally ill Latino in a bilingual video to advocate for medical aid in dying.

Miguel often wonders if God helped cross our paths to help deliver his final message on end-of-life options.

I truly believe He did.

Patricia A. González-Portillo is the National Latino Communications Manager and former California campaign communications director for Compassion & Choices. She is a former journalist for La Opinión , The [Riverside, CA] Press-Enterprise and The Brownsville [Texas] Herald.