In 1995, I went on a two week vacation and left my dog with a friend. My beloved dog was a 14 year old Yorkshire terrier who was slowly diminishing in health due to kidney failure. By the time I returned, she had lost 50% of her body weight and was clearly dying. I took her home immediately and began to make her comfortable. By 10 pm that night, I knew she was at death’s door. She was in great pain, bleeding from the rectum, and helpless. My heart went out to her. I wish I had had the medicine to let her die peacefully that night but I had to wait until 8am the following morning when the veterinary office would open. It was a long night and I slept on the floor next to her shivering body. The following morning I said good-bye as the veterinarian put her to sleep. It was a blessing to see her finally at peace, in that place where there is no more pain or suffering.
Having worked as a nurse several years earlier, I had seen many patients suffer in the final chapter of their lives. While the medical community has improved with pain control management, many folks still die in pain or in humiliating circumstances. I often wonder what I would do if I found myself in the same kind of situation. I think I would like to have the option that my dog had some 20 years ago.
In the past year, I have met two older people in Amador County (one who was paralyzed and the other who was disabled and suffering from pain that was not alleviated with pain medication). They both thought about the issue of the “Right to Die.” These folks wanted to have an “end of life” conversation with their physicians but one was rebuffed and the other did not feel safe to speak about this issue with her doctor. While large doses of pain medication is administered during the final days of life (which speeds up the death process), it seems that our current laws prohibit a planned process for dying with dignity before the final day.
While the California Legislature has recently tabled SB128 (End of Life Option Act), the majority of American adults support expanding end of life options. This includes the right of an individual (who is suffering from a terminal disease) to make a request for a drug to be administered by the individual for the purpose of dying peacefully. Do we have the right to make this decision when faced with a terminal prognosis? Should a person have a right to control one’s own body at the end of life? How do we deal with unredemptive suffering that cannot be alleviated with current medical intervention?
In 1997, the State of Oregon enacted the Death with Dignity Act. It allows for terminally ill adults (diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months) to obtain and use prescriptions from their physicians for self-administered lethal doses of medications. The patient must do this voluntarily and be determined to have “sound judgment.” From 1998-2013, a total of 1,173 Oregon residents have had prescriptions written for end of life use but only 752 have used them. The majority of these people were between the ages of 65-84, married, white, and having a baccalaureate degree or higher.
I think it is time for us to have an important conversation in Amador County about “The Right to Die: Expanding End of Life Options.” To that end, Trinity Church is sponsoring a public forum on August 28, 6-8pm at the Amador Senior Center, 229 New York Ranch Rd., Jackson. Our guest speaker is Marlene Tumlin from Compassion and Choices and Dr. Bob Hartmann from Amador County. During this forum/conversation, we will be discussing the ethics (religious, medical, secular), pros & cons, options, and the history of this controversial but important topic. Please come and invite your friends or other interested parties. See www.trinitysuttercreek.org for more information.