The Doctors Who Invented a New Way to Help People Die

The two lethal medications used by terminal patients who wish to end their own life recently became unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

Youssef Cohen, a right-to-die advocate with an incurable cancer, rides to a doctor’s appointment in New York with his wife in 2016.

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In 2016, a small group of doctors gathered in a Seattle conference room to find a better way to help people die. They included physicians at the forefront of medical aid in dying—the practice of providing terminal patients with a way to end their own life. And they were there because the aid-in-dying movement had recently run into a problem. The two lethal medications used by most patients for decades had suddenly become either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. When doctors briefly tried a substitute, some patients had rare but troubling experiences.

The Seattle group hoped to discover a different drug. But the practicalities of aid in dying, a controversial policy still illegal in most of the United States, are not like those in other medical fields. “There’s lots of data on stuff that helps people live longer, but there’s very little data on how to kill people,” says Terry Law, a participant at the meeting and one of the most frequently used aid-in-dying doctors in the U.S.

Seven states—including Hawaii, where a law took effect on January 1—and the District of Columbia now allow doctors to write lethal prescriptions for qualifying, mentally capable adults who have a terminal illness. And support for the practice has gained new national momentum after the widely publicized death of Brittany Maynard, a young cancer patient who moved to Oregon in 2014 to take advantage of that state’s aid-in-dying law.

But the public remains deeply conflicted about the laws—as does the medical community itself. No medical association oversees aid in dying, and no government committee helps fund the research. In states where the practice is legal, state governments provide guidance about which patients qualify, but say nothing about which drugs to prescribe. “Nowhere in the laws is there any sort of guidance for how to do it. There is no oversight to make sure that it’s happening in a safe way, apart from annual reports and kind of a face-value annual hearing,” says Laura Petrillo, a palliative-care physician who opposes legalized aid in dying.

The meeting of the 2016 group set in motion research that would lead the recipe for one of the most widely used aid-in-dying drugs in the United States. But the doctors’ work has taken place on the margins of traditional science. Despite their principled intentions, it’s a part of medicine that’s still practiced in the shadows.

On the surface, figuring out protocols for hastening death doesn’t seem complicated. Lonny Shavelson, a California physician who specializes in aid in dying, says that when he explains to patients it might take an hour or more for them to die, they’re often shocked. They tell him, “When I put down my dog, it took 10 minutes,” he says.

But veterinarians can use lethal injections on pets. In the U.S., aid-in-dying drugs must be ingested by the patient. The first proposed aid-in-dying law in Washington State would have allowed physicians to inject medications, but that legislation failed to pass. In 2008, a modified law was voted in, with an added requirement that patients self-ingest to help protect them from the possibility of family coercion.

For years, the two barbiturates widely considered the best drugs for hastening death in terminally ill patients were secobarbital and pentobarbital. These medications were painless, fast-acting, and relatively affordable. But since 2015, they’ve been largely unavailable. U.S. pharmacies stopped carrying pentobarbital approved for human use, and the price of secobarbital doubled from an already historic high after Valeant Pharmaceuticals (today known as Bausch Health) bought the manufacturing rights. A few years ago, a lethal dose cost about $200 or $300; now it can cost $3,500 or more.

To help patients who could no longer afford the drug, aid-in-dying groups sought a fix. In Washington, an advocacy organization called End of Life Washington briefly advised prescribing a drug mixture with the sedative chloral hydrate to about 70 patients. “We know this is going to put you to sleep, and we’re pretty sure it’s going to kill you,” Robert Wood, a medical director at the organization, says they told the patients. It worked, but with a tragic catch: In a few cases, the chloral hydrate burned people’s throats, causing severe pain just at the time they expected relief.

The End of Life gathering was born out of the need for a better solution. Wood enlisted three others affiliated with End of Life Washington: Law, its president; Tom Preston, a former medical director; and Carol Parrot, a retired anesthesiologist who, like Law, is one of the most experienced aid-in-dying doctors in the U.S. Others joined that meeting or later ones by telephone: a toxicologist in Iowa, a veterinarian, a pharmacologist, another anesthesiologist. The group had three main criteria, Parrot says: They wanted “a drug that would: number one, put a patient to sleep and keep them asleep; and, number two, make sure there was no pain involved; and number three, ensure that they would die, and, hopefully, die relatively quickly.” Plus, it had to be cheap. They aimed for $500 a dose.

The doctors considered a malaria medicine known to be lethal in large doses, but read that it caused severe muscle spasms in some patients. They discussed the synthetic opioid fentanyl, but were deterred by the drug’s newness and dangerous reputation. So the group decided to use a combination of medications, and eventually settled on high doses of three: morphine, diazepam—also known by its early brand name, Valium—and propranolol, a beta-blocker that slows the heart. They called the mixture DMP.

Next, the group had to test the drug. But they still didn’t have a way to follow standard procedure: There would be no government-approved clinical drug trial, and no Institutional Review Board oversight when they prescribed the concoction to patients. The doctors took what precautions they could. Patients could opt in or out, and for the first 10 deaths, either Parrot or Law would stay by the bedside and record patients’ and families’ responses.

The first two deaths went smoothly. But the third patient, an 81-year-old with prostate cancer, took 18 hours to die, Parrot says. In Oregon, where aid in dying has been legal for 20 years, the median time from taking the medication until death is 25 minutes. Patients themselves typically become unconscious in five or 10 minutes, so they are not affected by protracted times, Parrot, Wood, and Law all emphasize. But longer waiting periods can be nerve-racking for families and other caregivers, especially in the exceptional cases where these have persisted for a day or more.

Parrot and Law halted the DMP trial. The informal research group met again, this time by teleconference, and Law dug through the literature and found an article about people who purposely overdosed on digoxin, a cardiac drug. The group added it to the prescription, and the drug became DDMP.

At first, Parrot gave patients latitude in how they took this new drug combination. “One guy chugged a half a cup of Bailey’s Irish Cream, his favorite thing, after he had his medicine,” she says. “He probably took five or six hours to die.” She suspects that the fat particles in the Bailey’s slowed his gastric emptying. So the researchers checked in with each other again, and decided to increase the doses to what Parrot calls “blue-whale-sized doses.” They dubbed the modified formula DDMP2.

The drug is not a perfect aid-in-dying solution. Secobarbital is faster-acting and remains the drug of choice when patients can afford it, Wood says. Just as in the case of the barbiturates, a few outlier patients on DDMP2 take hours longer to die. And the mixture tastes extremely bitter. “Imagine taking two bottles of aspirin, crushing it up, and mixing it in less than half a cup of water or juice,” Parrot says.

Still, DDMP2 has become the low-cost solution the Seattle group set out to discover. In 2017, secobarbital was still the most commonly prescribed drug in Washington and Oregon, but in Colorado, DDMP2 was more commonly prescribed. The drug consistently accomplishes its purpose in hastening death, Parrot says: “It always works. It always, always works.”

Parrot and Wood keep track of patient data, and they continue to make discoveries. By examining medical histories of the patients who took longer to die, they’ve learned about certain risk factors for longer deaths: being on extremely high doses of painkillers such as fentanyl or morphine; being very athletic; having a compromised digestive tract. For patients who are especially risky, Parrot or Wood will sometimes offer the choice of chloral hydrate, the drug that burned some patients’ throats, although they say they carefully discuss potential problems with patients and families.

Together, Parrot and Law have written perhaps 300 lethal prescriptions over the years and observed the effects of medications on numerous patients. Neither set out to be an aid-in-dying advocate; they turned to End of Life Washington after witnessing the suffering of some dying patients. About eight years ago, Law says she was asked to prescribe lethal medications for a dying woman whose regular doctors had refused. She agreed to see the woman, and realized how difficult it was for some aid-in-dying patients to find doctors. Parrot says she was profoundly affected by the deaths of two close friends who asked her to help hasten their dying, but who lived in states where the practice was illegal. She was unable to help them, and began volunteering as an aid-in-dying doctor soon after she retired.

Most medical professionals don’t participate in aid in dying. Some physicians are concerned that their Hippocratic oath prohibits intentionally helping someone die, or that aid-in-dying requests originate from treatable pain or depression. Some worry about the broader repercussions for a society that accepts medically aiding the deaths of the terminally ill. The American Medical Association remains officially opposed.

Without the support of the rest of the profession and much of society, aid-in-dying research methods don’t fit the model of good medical research, says Matthew Wynia, the director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado. There’s no standard protocol, no standardized data collection or independent group that monitors data and safety—all of which are intended to protect patients and help ensure the quality of the research.

The Belmont Report, which guides federal recommendations for research on human subjects, recognizes that sometimes, no satisfactory options exist for some patients, Wynia points out. In those rare cases, a doctor may want to try an innovative treatment, something for which there’s no approved research protocol. While that’s legal, clinicians are supposed to avoid turning that innovation into established practice, or doing unapproved research on numerous patients, according to Wynia. Some of the same issues exist with medical marijuana, which is legal in several states but still illegal federally. “There’s no way to fix this at the individual level,” Wynia says. “There’s no immediate answer.”

That leaves researchers like Law and Parrot in a bind. They don’t have good ways to do research and communicate what they learn. But they’ve witnessed the suffering some dying people experience, and contrast that with many peaceful deaths of patients who choose aid in dying. “These are not hard deaths,” argues Shavelson, the California physician. “These are lovely deaths.”

Shavelson says he tries to be at the bedside on the day of his aid-in-dying patients’ death. “It’s a lighter atmosphere than you think,” he says. The patient takes the first drug, which Shavelson separates out from the rest of the mixture, and then Shavelson sits down at the bedside and reads aloud questions from the state’s required report. After about 30 minutes, he asks: “Are you ready to take the medications?” He mixes the drug cocktail and the patient drinks it.

“Usually, they go silent after taking the medication,” he says. “They’ve said what they’re going to say by that time.” For a few minutes, patients usually continue to sit silently, their eyes open. “And then, very, very slowly, they’ll close their eyes.”

Shavelson asks intermittently, “Are you still there?” At first, patients usually say yes, or nod. Within five or 10 minutes, they stop responding to the question. Then Shavelson will gently touch their eyelids. “When people aren’t deeply unconscious, they’ll sort of have a twitching response,” he explains. Within 10 or 15 minutes, the twitching response disappears, and patients enter a deep coma.

Using a heart monitor, Shavelson tells caregivers as a patient’s pulse slows and oxygen levels drop. “We wait a little while, and then I say, ‘Ah, the patient’s now dead.’”

This is the first generation of patients who have consciously hastened their death with medications in this way, Shavelson says. He tells them they’re pioneers. “What a different thing, to be able to say, ‘This is the day I die,’” he says.

Complete Article HERE!

The Nuance of Death With Dignity

Six states allow medical aid in dying, but opinions and experiences run the gamut

By Michelle Carter

Death with dignity is a movement gaining steam.  A June 2017 Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans supported medical aid in dying at a patient’s request, as long as it is painless.

Oregon is just one of six states plus the District of Columbia with laws in place that allow medical aid in dying. Doctor-assisted suicide will also become legal in Hawaii in January 2019. In 2018, 23 states entertained death with dignity legislation, and Maine is voting on a ballot initiative in 2019.

While the names of the bills vary — Death with Dignity, Medical Aid in Dying, Medically Assisted Dying — the bills are remarkably similar.

Death With Dignity: The Details

For death with dignity, participation by doctors or nurses is strictly voluntary. No doctor can be compelled to prescribe life-ending medicines, there are no government programs which will provide assistance and there is no database of participating doctors.

To qualify for a prescription for life-ending medications, patients must prove they are a legal resident of the state in which it is legal, be 18 or older, be mentally competent and diagnosed with a terminal illness that will likely lead to death within six months. Patients must also be able to self administer the medication. At least two physicians must determine all criteria are met, and several states with pending legislation require witnesses who are unrelated to the patient who have no financial interest in the patient’s estate.

Physicians must also inform patients of alternatives, such as hospice, palliative care and pain management techniques. Physicians may make a referral for psychological or psychiatric evaluation. The laws and bills also require the patient to make at least two oral requests with a waiting period of at least 15 days (20 in Hawaii) between requests, followed by a written request.

Controversy Still Present

Dr. Jamie Wells, a medical ethicist and a director of medicine for the American Council on Science and Health, said the debate over medically-assisted dying laws is difficult in part because we live in a binary culture which tries to reduce everything to black and white. But the individual situations where a law like this would come into play, she noted, are often gray.

“I wish we had more of an honest portrayal of how things happen in these circumstances. Nuances matter, and with these conversations about right to die and end of life, discussion is lost and progress is not made,” Wells said. “There are many shades of gray. Some people refuse further therapy. Sometimes trying the last-ditch chemo can be the cause of death.”

Australian scientist David Goodall made headlines in May when he traveled to Switzerland to end his life at age 104. He had at least one failed attempt to end his life at his home before traveling to Switzerland.

“When people have a failed attempt they can acquire new disease and illness which increases their suffering,” Wells said. “People who attempt to overdose on Tylenol, for example, can have profound liver disease as a result.”

Navigating Family Influence

End-of-life care is an area of medicine where a patient’s family often has an influence on care. But since death with dignity legislation requires non-family witnesses, patients aren’t pressured into ending their lives prematurely.

The opposite scenario happens as well — one where family members resist the patient’s desire to die.

“I’ve literally had a spouse say to me, ‘He can’t die until this date because that’s when the next check comes in,’” hospice nurse Alison Keeler of Washington state said. “Family isn’t always on board with a death with dignity decision. I became a hospice nurse because so often we were doing interventions on people that I felt were really hastening their deaths. They weren’t comforted. They suffered.”

Kristin Metzger of Maryland, another hospice nurse, has taken care of patients who had family members waiting on an inheritance and patients who receive the gamut of care because a family is depending on a Social Security check.

“I’ve seen people intubated, tube-fed, because there is financial gain,” Metzger said. “They’re the reason hospitals have ethics committees.”

Metzger stressed that terminal patients, regardless of whether they are in a state where medical aid in dying is legal or not, should not have to worry about suffering or pain.

“Is physician-assisted dying the answer or the Band-Aid? I actually wonder if we put our work and energy into addressing the root cause — if hospice isn’t actually the answer.” Metzger said. “Many people live longer on hospice because we’re managing their quality of life… If people truly understood what hospice and palliative care can provide for the terminally ill, no one would ever consider medical aid in dying.”

While Metzger, Keeler and Wells hold different opinions on death with dignity legislation, all three agreed it is important for families to discuss their opinions and wishes openly long before a crisis occurs.

“In a perfect world: Everyone has the right discussion at the right time when they can make the right decisions, but unfortunately people are messy and complicated.” Wells said.

Complete Article HERE!

The Growing Acceptance of Medical Aid in Dying

More and more voters support options to allow the terminally ill to peacefully end their suffering. Politicians have little to fear from the issue.

By Kim Callinan  

While expanding and protecting health care was the number-one issue for voters on Nov. 6, what has gone unreported is that elected officials can now safely run on the issue of expanding and protecting end-of-life care options. For decades, lawmakers feared that sponsoring medical aid-in-dying bills that would allow terminally ill adults to have the option to peacefully end their suffering would harm their chances of getting re-elected. This year’s elections proved those concerns false.

Nearly all of the lead sponsors of bills in 28 states to authorize medical aid in dying in 2017 and 2018 who ran for re-election won (13 out of 14 state senators and 49 out of 53 state representatives). Voters also elected or re-elected at least five governors who publicly supported medical aid in dying: David Ige in Hawaii, Gavin Newsom in California, J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico. (Grisham’s opponent, Steve Peace, vehemently opposed medical aid in dying.)

In addition, Congressman Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania, a sponsor of a failed resolution to overturn Washington, D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act and another House resolution condemning medical aid-in-dying laws nationwide that garnered only 13 co-sponsors, was defeated for re-election.

None of this should be particularly surprising. A majority of voters embraced this issue long before many elected officials and political candidates did — since 1996, according to Gallup’s annual polling; its 2017 poll shows that 73 percent of Americans support medical aid in dying, including 81 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents and 67 percent of Republicans and Republican-leading independents. In short, medical aid in dying is a rare bipartisan/nonpartisan issue. Five GOP legislators are among sponsors or co-sponsors of bills allowing medical aid in dying.

This unusually strong, wide-ranging support explains why 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who moved from California to Oregon in 2014 to access its medical aid-in-dying law, was able to capture the attention of the American public. Three weeks after her YouTube video went viral, generating international news coverage, a YouGov poll showed that 38 percent of American adults — 93 million people — had heard her story.

Inspired, in part, by Maynard’s advocacy, since 2015 California, Colorado, the District of Columbia and Hawaii have enacted medical aid-in-dying laws. Today, D.C. and seven states accounting for nearly one out of five Americans have the option of medical aid in dying.

This movement is picking up major momentum, particularly among the millions of baby boomers who have watched their parents die in needless suffering because they did not have the option of medical aid in dying.

In addition, we know that these laws improve care by prompting conversations between doctors and patients about all end-of-life options, including hospice and palliative care. Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity Act has helped spur the state to lead the nation in hospice enrollment.

This helps explain why a 2016 Medscape survey of physicians showed doctors supporting medical aid in dying by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, 57 percent to 29 percent, up from 46 percent support in 2010. Just last month, the American Academy of Family Physicians dropped its opposition to medical aid in dying and adopted a position of “engaged neutrality,” noting that “family physicians are well-positioned to … engage in creating change in the best interest of [their] patients.” Medical societies in D.C. and nine states have adopted similar positions, and the New York State Academy of Family Physicians has endorsed allowing medical aid in dying.

Perhaps the most important benefit of medical aid in dying is that it is transforming end-of-life care in the same way childbirth care was transformed decades ago. As more states implement medical aid-in-dying laws, more and more patients have a voice in how they live the final chapter of their lives and how they die. Just as obstetricians and gynecologists now ask women for their input about who they want in the birthing room and whether they want to receive medication, doctors in states where medical aid in dying is authorized now are engaging in similar conversations with terminally ill patients.

In time, we will live in a world where health care providers fully inform their terminally ill patients about the benefits and burdens of all available forms of treatment and where deciding to end suffering and allow for a peaceful death will be a widely accepted medical option. The sooner we get there, the better.

Complete Article HERE!

Choosing your own exit.

For some who are terminally ill, hastening their own death may be the answer.

By Samuel P. Harrington

Four months before he died, my father, a widower of six years and a hospice patient, asked me to discuss techniques for hastening his death, although he did not use that term: “I have lived too long. What can I do?”

He was living in Wisconsin where medical aid-in-dying, which allows terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of medicine from a physician, was not legal. At first, I was afraid that he was asking me, a physician, to go around the law and supply him with a lethal dose of sedatives. Fortunately, he was not. He was dying of lymphoma and geriatric “failure to thrive” (old age), but it was a slow and unpleasant process. What could he do, he wanted to know, to move things along? He was ready

It was Christmas Day and I was cooking a few of my mother’s traditional dishes. Gradually, and recognizing the irony of simultaneously baking his favorite pie, I eased into a conversation about refusing to eat and drink. We had had this conversation in the past and it always ended the same way. Unlike most of my terminally ill patients, my father had not lost his appetite and would not give up the pleasure that food brought him.

The next day, he had come to decision: He would no longer take any medications designed to prolong his life, he announced to his family, caregivers and hospice nurses. These included heart pills, blood pressure pills and electrolyte supplements. He would, however, continue palliative medications, including tranquilizers and pain pills. My father died painlessly exactly four months later from the effects of multiple ministrokes.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of people over age 65 die of six chronic illnesses (heart failure, cancer, lung disease, stroke, dementia and diabetes). If I am fortunate enough to live to a ripe old age, I expect that I will suffer from one of these illnesses. If treatments are ineffective and a prolonged dying process is intolerable, perhaps I, like my father, will want to hasten my death.

As a doctor, I have found that having a sense of some control at the end can be reassuring to people. Yet it’s not easy — nor should it be — for someone to say, “I’m ready to be done with this,” and then have it be so.

In general, three ways are available where a terminally ill patient can speed up the process of dying without the assistance of someone else. One is by declining (or discontinuing) medical treatments that prolong life without improving the quality of life. Stopping his non-palliative medications was my father’s variation on this theme.

Another approach is to refuse to eat or drink. Known as voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, VSED (pronounced “V-said”) is an effective technique that takes advantage of the natural tendency for the terminally ill to lose their appetite to the disease process. This means that there are minimal hunger pains. Patients die of dehydration, which sounds bad but dehydration, by itself, is a pain-free condition. Most people have easily managed symptoms of thirst that stop as things progress. About 10 percent have significant, hard-to-manage symptoms of thirst. Most people slip into a coma in two to four days and pass away in 10 to 14 days.

The third approach is to take a lethal dose of medication. Medical aid-in-dying is legal in seven states and the District. The vast majority of terminally ill patients who choose to exit life this way slip into a coma in minutes and die painlessly within hours.

Having tended many terminally ill patients, I’ve often wondered what I would do if faced with a prolonged death from a chronic illness. If told I had less than six months to live, I would certainly enter hospice care, where the focus of doctors and other health-care professionals is on preserving quality — not quantity — of life. But then what?

Discontinuing or declining medical treatment includes everything from refusing life support or turning it off after a catastrophic stroke, infection or heart attack to discontinuing a pacemaker, a feeding tube or kidney dialysis.

It can also mean no antibiotics for a pneumonia or bladder infection in a bedbound hospice patient. Comforted by palliative treatments — narcotics and sedatives that induce comfort and sedation — any of these decisions will result in a comparatively comfortable death.

My quandary with this method for hastening death is that it relies on the random development of a disease or complication (stroke, infection or heart attack, for example). It is not a proactive strategy offering a better sense of control.

Medical aid-in-dying is proactive and it is effective. It is an option that I believe people should have available to them. Yet it comes with an unanticipated scheduling complication that gives me pause.

The laws allowing medical aid-in-dying are written to protect chronically ill patients from impulsive decision-making, coercion and premature deaths. Most require that patients themselves initiate the process; be certified by two physicians as terminally ill (defined as a life expectancy of less than six months) and mentally competent (without serious depression); undergo a two-week waiting period between the time of certification and acquisition of the medications; and remain mentally competent and physically capable of self-administration at the time of ingestion.

One woman I interviewed lives in Oregon, where medical aid-in-dying has been available for more that 20 years. Her story epitomized the scheduling conundrum.

When her husband was dying of rapidly progressive cancer, they scheduled a family gathering at which time he planned to take his lethal potion. One week before the event, progressive disease threatened his ability to self-administer the medication and they had to hurriedly reschedule with their children and the end-of-life volunteers who mix the medications and witness the process. One son could not reschedule. The wife felt rushed and disappointed that her son could not make it in time.

That scheduling artifice bothers me and supports the nagging sense of prematurity that I associate with many aid-in-dying deaths.

Yet if I lived in a state where it was available, I would consider it, particularly under two conditions: If I were suffering from poorly controlled pain or if I could not be kept clean because of uncontrollable incontinence. (I have seen this in men and women who have suffered complications from pelvic radiation, surgery or cancer itself.)

For me, under most circumstances, that leaves VSED. It cannot really be premature or impulsive. It accelerates the body’s natural decline. And it takes 48 to 96 hours of self-controlled commitment before the patient slips into a self-propagating coma. It would offer me control and demonstrate to my family that my death is appropriate and appropriately timed.

How I will face the final phase of my life is of course unknowable. But I am sure that a sense of control is the most important attribute of a good death and that advance care planning helps more patients achieve their end-of-life wishes.

I know that I do not want to be a burden on my family. I want my values and my legacy to be affirmed and appreciated. I want to be clean and comfortable. I want to optimize my relationships and bring closure to as many problems as possible. And I want my death to be appropriate in time and place.

To achieve all this requires discussions with doctors, family and friends. It also requires understanding one’s disease and likely prognosis and then deciding when to say “no” to aggressive treatment and when to say “yes” to hospice care.

These are not easy conversations or decisions. Yet to reach the peaceful end that most of us wish for, one might require a plan to hasten the process.

Complete Article HERE!

Death as a Design Challenge

Last year Elaine Fong’s mother used the Washington Death with Dignity Act. Elaine shared the experience of helping her mother fulfill her end-of-life wishes in a TEDx San Francisco presentation in October 2017.

Elaine told us, “Our family is grateful to have given our mom a peaceful death and to fulfill her end of life wishes in this way. I wanted to share the experience we had with the world, because I understand how important it is to have this honest conversation, and because it was her wish to help others be brave too. Her life would have ended painfully if it were not for this policy and the work you all have done.”

The Art of Dying Well

It’s been nearly two years since Colorado passed the End-of-Life Options Act. How has the controversial law affected Centennial Staters, and how, exactly, does one plan for a good death?

Merely Mortals

This is a story about death.

About how we in the United States—and maybe to a slightly lesser degree, here in Colorado and the West—tend to separate ourselves, emotionally and physically, from both the ugliness and the beauty of our inevitable ends. We don’t like to think about dying. We don’t like to deal with dying. And we certainly don’t like to talk about dying. Maybe that’s because acknowledging that human bodies are ephemeral short-circuits American brains groomed to (illogically) hope for a different outcome. Perhaps it’s also because the moment death becomes part of the public discourse, as it has in the Centennial State over the past several years, things can get uncomfortably personal and wildly contentious.

“As a society, we don’t do a great job of talking about being mortal. My secret hope is that this [new law] prompts talks about all options with dying.”

When Coloradans (with an assist from Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit committed to expanding end-of-life options) got Proposition 106, aka the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act, on the ballot in 2016, there was plenty of pushback—from the Archdiocese of Denver, advocacy groups for the disabled, hospice directors, hospital administrators, and more physicians than one might think. But on November 8, 64.9 percent of voters OK’d the access-to-medical-aid-in-dying measure, making Colorado the fifth jurisdiction to approve the practice. (Oregon, California, Montana, Washington, Hawaii, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., have or are planning to enact similar laws.) Not everyone was happy, but if there’s one thing both opponents and supporters of the legislation can (mostly) agree on, it’s that the surrounding debate at least got people thinking about a very important part of life: death.

“As a society, we don’t do a great job of talking about being mortal,” says Dr. Dan Handel, a palliative medicine physician and the director of the medical-aid-in-dying service at Denver Health. “My secret hope is that this [new law] prompts talks about all options with dying.” We want to help get those conversations started. In the following pages, we explore everything from how to access the rights afforded in the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act to how we should reshape the ways we think about, plan for, and manage death. Why? “We’re all going to die,” says Dr. Cory Carroll, a Fort Collins family practice physician. “But in America, we have no idea what death is.” Our goal is to help you plan for a good death—whatever that means to you.

Death’s Having a Moment

Colorado’s end-of-life options legislation isn’t the only way in which Coloradans are taking charge of their own deaths. Some Centennial Staters have begun contemplating their ends with the help of death doulas. —Meghan Rabbitt

As the nation’s baby boomers age, our country is approaching a new milestone: more gravestones. Over the next few decades, deaths in America are projected to hit a historic high—more than 3.6 million by 2037, which is one million more RIPs than in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Here in Colorado, home to Boulder’s Conscious Dying Institute, there are a growing number of “death doulas” trained to help us cross over on our own terms.

Death doulas offer planning and emotional support to the dying and their loved ones, and since 2013, the Conscious Dying Institute has trained more than 750. Unlike doctors, nurses, hospice workers, and other palliative-care practitioners who treat the dying, death doulas don’t play a medical role. In much the same way that birth doulas help pregnant women develop and stick to birth plans, death doulas help their clients come up with arrangements for how they want to exit this life. That might mean talking about what projects feel important to finish (like writing that book) or helping someone make amends with estranged family members or friends or determining how much medication someone wants administered at the end. “When people are dying, they want to be heard,” says Nicole Matarazzo, a Boulder-based death doula. “If a doula is present, she’ll be able to fully show up for the person who’s dying—and model that presence for family members.”

Over the past year, the Conscious Dying Institute has seen a noticeable jump in the number of Coloradans using its directory of doulas and inquiring about training. When she started working in end-of-life care in 1998, founder Tarron Estes (pictured) says no one had heard of death doulas. Now she’s getting roughly 25 calls a week. “More people are getting comfortable talking about death,” Estes says. “In cities like Denver, there’s a willingness to talk about topics that are taboo in other areas of the country.” Medical aid in dying is, of course, a prime example.

That embrace of the end might be just another part of what is becoming known as the “death-positive movement.” More than 314,000 people have downloaded a free starter packet from the Conversation Project, a nonprofit that gets people talking about their end-of-life wishes. And more than 6,700 “death cafes,” where people gather to talk about death over tea and cake, have popped up around the nation, including several in Colorado. Ready to make a date with death? The Denver Metro Death Cafe’s next meeting is on October 20.

Knocking On A Death Doula’s Door

What to look for in an end-of-life guide.

1. Ask to see a certificate of education and research the organization that provided the doula’s training. Look for curricula that involve at least some in-person instruction. For example, the Conscious Dying Institute’s eight-day, on-site training portion includes lectures, writing exercises, demonstrations, and partner practices. It’s also split into a three-day session and a five-day session, with a 10-week internship requirement between each on-site phase.

2. Compare fees. Death doulas in Colorado charge about $25 to $125 an hour and may offer a sliding scale based on their clients’ financial means.

3. Pay attention to the doula’s listening skills. The last thing you want as you prepare to cross over is someone who hasn’t been hearing you all along.

Ink Your Legacy

If a good death includes making sure your family is cared for, one of the greatest favors you can do for your loved ones is to provide a clear path to all of your worldly possessions. Putting in the time—and paperwork—to plan for the dissemination of all your stuff can save your family months of headaches, heartaches, and contentious probate battles. Not sure what kind of estate planning documents you need? We spoke with Kevin Millard, a Denver-based estate planning attorney, to help you get started.

If you don’t you care about who gets your stuff…
Great; then you probably don’t need a will. If you don’t have a will, your stuff—cars, jewelry, artwork, etc.—goes to your closest relative(s) under what are known as “intestate succession laws” (the laws that govern how your stuff is divided after your death). The state maintains very specific equations for different scenarios. For instance, if you die with a spouse and children from a previous relationship, your spouse gets the first $150,000 of your intestate property plus half of the remaining balance, and the descendants get everything else. Or, if you die with a spouse and living parents, your partner gets the first $300,000 of your intestate property and three-quarters of anything over that. Your parents get

If you do care about who gets your stuff and some of your “stuff” is minor children…
At the very least, you need a guardian appointment document to determine who will care for your children after your death. Physical custody is different from managing any money you might have set aside for your children. You can name one person to manage the money and another to actually care for your children. Also, if your selected guardian doesn’t live where you do, he or she gets to decide whether or not your kids have to move.

If your most valuable stuff is not really “stuff” at all, but more like life insurance policies, 401(k) plans, bank accounts, etc…
Then you’ve probably already designated who gets what by appointing a beneficiary for those things. Anything with a beneficiary—life insurance policies, payable-upon-death bank accounts, retirement plans, or property held in joint tenancy (e.g., your house)—does not get distributed according to intestate succession laws (the laws that govern how your stuff is divided after your death if you don’t have a will). It goes to the listed beneficiary. However, you might want to consider also designating a durable financial power of attorney to manage all of your accounts in the event you become incapacitated before you die. Ditto for a medical power of attorney.

If your stuff is worth millions…
In addition to a will, you should consider a trust. This can protect your estate from being included in lawsuits if you’re sued, and it can also ease some of the estate tax burden on your heirs. But if you’re worth millions, then you probably already have people on retainer who’ve told you this.

If your stuff isn’t worth millions…
You need a will if you want to make life easier for your heirs. (In Colorado, any estate valued at more than $65,000 must go through probate court—a process that takes many months to finalize because you cannot close an estate here until six months after a death certificate has been issued, which can take several days or even weeks.) The general rule in Colorado is that a will must be signed by two witnesses to be valid. If you go through the trouble of having it notarized, it becomes a self-proving will, which means the court doesn’t have to track down the witnesses to certify its validity. You can also handwrite and sign your will; that’s known as a holographic will and does not require witnesses—but it does come with a lot of hand cramps.

My Father’s Final Gift

When it came to preparing for the end of his life, my father planned for the worst, knowing that would be best for me. —Jerilyn Forsythe

It was June in Arizona, and it was hot inside my dad’s kitchen. The whole place smelled musty, the way old cabins do, and I watched as a swath of sunlight coming through the window illuminated lazy plumes of dust. My thoughts felt as clouded and untethered as the drifting specks. I had flown in from Denver the day before and driven more than 100 miles from Phoenix to collect some of my father’s things and bring them to the hospital, where he lay in a medically induced coma.

It had all happened so fast. I’d received a midnight call from a neurosurgeon in Phoenix—the same one who had done a fairly routine surgery to mend a break in my dad’s cervical spine a few weeks earlier. Somehow, the physician said, my father had accidentally undone the surgery, leaving two screws and a metal plate floating in his neck. The doctor explained that he had operated emergently on my dad, who would be under a heavy fentanyl drip—and a halo—until he stabilized.

Although my parents had been divorced since I was two years old, my mother was there to help me that afternoon in Dad’s cabin. Between coaching me through decisions like which of his T-shirts to pack and whether or not I should bring his reading glasses, she happened upon a navy blue three-ring binder, with a cover page that read “Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney & Living Will for Larry Forsythe,” in his bedroom.

He had never told me about the binder, but my name graced nearly every page within it. On a durable financial power of attorney. On a durable medical power of attorney. On a living will. And on his last will and testament. My typically nonconformist dad had prepared a collection of legal files that would become my bible in the ensuing months.

During the roughly 16 weeks he was hospitalized, I would reread, reference, fax, scan, copy, and email those documents—particularly the powers of attorney—countless times. I also thought, on nearly as many occasions, how fortunate I was that my dad, who probably struggled to pay for a law firm to draw up the papers, had done so just a year before he was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital. Without his wishes committed to paper, I know I would not have been able to fully and confidently make decisions on his behalf. But, navy blue binder in hand, I was empowered to speak with authority to doctors, nurses, bank executives, and even the cable company, which would not have stopped the monthly payments that were dwindling his already heartbreakingly low bank account had I not been designated his financial power of attorney.

I always thought that having a sick or dying loved one meant hospital visits and flowers and tears—all of which is true—but I spent far more time on the phone with medical professionals, financial institutions, and social workers than I did crying. I imagine all of that strife would have been magnified dramatically had we not found that binder.

My dad died a year ago this month. His passing brought more challenges for me, but for a long time after, I silently thanked him for having the foresight to visit that estate planning law firm, for considering what I’d go through when he was no longer here. It was one of the last—and best—gifts he ever gave me.

Process Oriented

Navigating the myriad steps to legally access medical-aid-in-dying drugs can be an arduous undertaking already. Some obstacles, though, are making it even more frustrating for terminally ill patients and their families.

Step No. 1: Determine Eligibility

For a person to be eligible to receive care under the law, he or she must be 18 years or older; a resident of Colorado; terminally ill with six months or less to live; acting voluntarily; mentally capable of making medical decisions; and physically able to self-administer and ingest the lethal medications. All of these requirements must be documented by the patient and confirmed by the patient’s physician, who must agree to prescribe the medication.

Procedural Glitch: Because the law allows individual physicians to opt out of prescribing medical-aid-in-dying drugs for any reason and because some hospital systems and hospices have—in a potentially illegal move—decided not to allow their doctors to prescribe the meds, it is sometimes difficult for patients to find physicians willing to assist them.

Step No. 2: Present Oral And Written Requests

An individual must ask his or her physician for access to a medical-aid-in-dying prescription a total of three times. Two of the requests must be oral, in person, and separated by 15 days. The third must be written and comply with the conditions set in the law (signed and dated by the patient; signed by two witnesses who attest that the patient is mentally capable of making medical decisions, acting voluntarily, and not being coerced by anyone).
Procedural Glitch: Although mandatory waiting periods are required in all jurisdictions with medical-aid-in-dying laws, these requirements are especially challenging for patients in small towns or rural areas, where there might not be a doctor willing to participate for 100 miles. For terminally ill patients, making two long road trips to present oral requests can be next to impossible.

Step No. 3: Get A Referral To A Consulting Physician

The law requires that once a patient’s attending physician has received the appropriate requests and determined the patient has a terminal illness with a prognosis of less than six months to live, the doctor must refer the patient to another physician, who must agree with the diagnosis and prognosis as well as confirm that the patient is mentally capable, acting voluntarily, and not being coerced.

Procedural Glitch: Once again, difficulties with finding a willing physician can cause lengthy wait times.

Step No. 4: Fill The Prescription At A Pharmacy

Colorado’s medical-aid-in-dying law doesn’t stipulate which drug a physician must prescribe. There are multiple options, which your doctor should discuss with you. Depending on your insurance coverage (Medicare, Medicaid, and many insurance companies do not cover the drugs), as well as which hospital system your doctor works in, getting the medication can be as simple as filling a script for anything else.

Procedural Glitch: Not every hospital system will allow its on-site pharmacies to fill the prescriptions—HealthOne, for example, doesn’t. Corporate pharmacies, like Walgreens, and grocery-store-based pharmacies often will not fill or do not have the capability to fill the prescriptions. What’s more, Colorado pharmacists are able to opt out of filling the prescription for moral or religious reasons. That leaves doctors and patients in search of places to obtain the drugs once all of the other requirements have been fulfilled.

Step No. 5: Self-Administer The Medications

Although the time and place are mostly up to the patient, if he or she does decide to take the life-ending drugs, he or she must be physically able to do so independent of anyone else. Physical capability is something patients must consider, especially if their conditions are progressing quickly and could ultimately render them incapable of, for example, swallowing the medications.

Procedural Glitch: Depending on the drug that is prescribed and the pharmacy that fills it, patients and/or their families are sometimes put in the position of having to prepare the medication before it can be administered. Breaking open 100 tiny pill capsules and pouring the powder into a liquid can be taxing even under less stressful circumstances.

Step No. 6: Wait For The End

In most cases, medical-aid-in-dying patients fall asleep within minutes of drinking the medication and die within one to three hours. The law encourages doctors to tell their patients to have someone present when they ingest the lethal drugs.

Procedural Glitch: Although most doctors who prescribe the medication do not participate in the death, it is worth asking your physician or your hospice care organization in advance about what to do in the minutes immediately after your loved one has died at home, as 78.6 percent of Coloradans who received prescriptions for life-ending meds under the law and subsequently died (whether they ingested the drugs or not) did in 2017. Someone with the correct credentials will need to pronounce death and fill out the form necessary for a death certificate (cause of death is the underlying terminal illness, not death by suicide) before a funeral home can pick up the body.

Who’s In & Who’s Out?

A short breakdown of metro-area hospitals’ and health systems’ stances.

Completely Out
SCL Health
Centura Health
VA Eastern
Colorado Health Care System
Craig Hospital

In, With Caveats
HealthOne
Boulder Community Health

All In
Denver Health
UCHealth
Kaiser Permanente Colorado

Alternative Endings

An Oregon nonprofit is Colorado’s best aid-in-dying resource.

Although Oregon’s Compassion & Choices is best known here as the organization that helped push Proposition 106 onto Colorado’s November 2016 ballot, the nation’s oldest end-of-life-options nonprofit didn’t abandon the Centennial State after the initiative passed. “First, we help states enact the laws,” says Compassion & Choices’ Kat West, “then we stick around to help with implementation and make sure it’s successful.”

In Colorado, the rollout has been fairly fluid. Perfect? Certainly not. Fortunately, Compassion & Choices has been trying to smooth some of the wrinkles in the system. The biggest help so far might be its website. The nonprofit keeps its online content updated with everything a Coloradan needs to know about the state’s End-of-Life Options Act. Of particular note: the Find Care tool, which lists clinics and health systems that have adopted supportive policies, since finding participating physicians, hospitals, and pharmacies is still challenging. “Patients don’t have the time or energy to figure this out on their own,” West says. “We do it for them.”

Hospice Hurdles

Why some local hospices aren’t as involved in Colorado’s aid-in-dying process as you’d expect.

Despite what you might have heard, hospice is not a place where one goes to be euthanized. “That misconception is out there,” says Nate Lamkin, president of Pathways hospice in Northern Colorado. “We don’t want to perpetuate the thought that we’re in the business of putting people down. That’s not what we do.” That long-standing myth of hospice care is, in part, why many Colorado hospices have declined—potentially in violation of state law—to fully participate in the End-of-Life Options Act.

By and large, the mission of hospice—which is not necessarily a place, but a palliative approach to managing life-limiting illness—has always been to relieve patient suffering and to enhance quality of life without hastening or postponing death, Lamkin explains. “This law kind of goes in opposition to that ethos,” he says. To that end, like many other hospices, Pathways has taken a stance of neutrality: Pathways physicians cannot prescribe the life-ending medication, but the staff will support their patients—by attending deaths, by helping with documentation—who choose the option. “We are not participating by not prescribing,” Lamkin says. “But it is the law of the land, and we fully support those who choose medical aid in dying.”

Pathways is not alone in its abridged participation. Other large Front Range hospice care providers, like the Denver Hospice, have also either taken an arm’s-length stance on the practice or opted out entirely. End-of-life options advocacy nonprofit Compassion & Choices regards this as willful noncompliance, which could leave hospice providers exposed to legal action, especially considering that 92.9 percent of Colorado’s patients who died following the reception of a prescription for aid-in-dying meds in 2017 were using hospice care to ameliorate symptoms and make their deaths as comfortable as possible. But, says Compassion & Choices spokesperson Jessie Koerner, when hospices abstain from fully supporting medical aid in dying, it strips away Coloradans’ rights—rights to which the terminally ill are legally entitled.

 

Filling More Than Just Prescriptions

After spending years at a chain pharmacy, Denverite Dan Scales opened his own shop in Uptown so he could better serve his customers. 5280 spoke with him about being one of the few pharmacists in Colorado meeting the needs of medical-aid-in-dying patients.

5280: Of the roughly 70 medical-aid-in-dying prescriptions written in Colorado in 2017, Scales Pharmacy filled approximately 22 of them. Why so many?
Dan Scales: As a pharmacist, you have no obligation to fill a script that’s against your moral code. So there are many pharmacists who won’t fill the drugs. Also, many chain pharmacies—like Walgreens—don’t mix compounds, which means they can’t make the drug cocktail a lot of physicians prescribe. That leaves independent pharmacies like ours.

You don’t have any objections to the state’s End-of-Life Options Act?
I really believe we kinda drop the ball at the end of life. We do a poor job of allowing people to pass with dignity. I won’t lie, though: After filling the first couple of prescriptions, I did feel like I helped kill that person. I needed a drink. But talking with the families after helps.

You follow up with your patients’ families?
Yes. We ask them to call us after their loved one has passed. We want to know how it went, how the drugs worked, how long it took, was everything peaceful? I’d say about 30 percent call us to offer feedback. It helps us know how to better help the next person. You have to understand, this is not a normal prescription; we talk with these people a lot before we even hand them the drugs. We get to know them.

If you could change one thing about the process, what would it be?
It’s frustrating that there’s not more pharmacy participation in our state. We’re having to mail medications to the Western Slope because people can’t find the services they need.

Final Destination

She couldn’t travel with him this time, but a Lakewood woman supported her husband’s decision to go anyway.

They met online, way back in the fuzzy dial-up days of 1999. J and Susan* weren’t old, exactly, but at 50 and 49, respectively, they had both previously been married. They quickly learned they had a lot in common. They were both introverts. Each had an interest in photography. And they loved to travel, especially to far-flung places, like Antarctica. After about two years of dating, they got married in a courthouse in Denver. For the next 17 years, they saw the world together and were, Susan says, “a really great team.”

The team’s toughest test began in fall 2017. Susan says she should’ve known something was wrong when she asked J if he wanted to go on an Asia-Pacific cruise and he balked. Upon reflection, Susan realized J likely hadn’t been feeling well. “That hesitation was a clue,” she says. The diagnosis, which came in January 2018, was a devastating one: stage 3-plus esophageal cancer. It was, as Susan puts it, “a cancer with no happy ending.”

It would also be, Susan knew, a terribly difficult situation for J to manage. He had never been able to stand not being healthy; she was certain he wouldn’t tolerate being truly sick. And esophageal cancer makes one very, very sick. The tumors make swallowing food difficult, if not impossible. As a result, some sufferers lose weight at an uncontrollable clip. They can also experience chest pain and nasty bouts of acid reflux. J knew he was dying—and that he didn’t want to go on living if he could no longer shower or go to the bathroom alone or be reasonably mobile. He broached the topic of medical aid in dying with Susan in February. “Honestly, I had already thought about it,” she says, “so I told him I thought it was a great idea.”

As a Kaiser Permanente Colorado patient, J had access to—and full coverage for—the life-ending drugs. The process, Susan says, was lengthy but seamless. J got a prescription for secobarbital and pre-dose meds; they arrived by courier to their house in April. Having the drugs in hand gave J some peace. He wasn’t quite ready, but he knew he was in control of his own death. He would know it was time when he began to feel like his throat would be too tight to swallow the drugs—or when he became unable to care for himself.

That time came in late June. He was weakening, and he knew it. Having decided on a date, J had one last steak dinner with his family on the night before his death. “He was actually able to get a few bites down,” Susan says. “He was also able to have a nice, not-too-teary goodbye with his stepchildren. It was wonderful.”

Although she was immeasurably sad when she woke the next day, Susan says seeing the relief on J’s face that morning reinforced for her why medical-aid-in-dying laws are so important. She knew it was unequivocally the right decision for him—a solo trip into the unknown, but he was ready for it. At noon on June 25, J sat down on the couch and drank the secobarbital mixed with orange juice. “Then he hugged me,” Susan says, “and he said, ‘It’s working’ and fell asleep one minute later. It was really perfect. He did not suffer. It was all just like he wanted it.”
*Names have been altered to protect the family’s privacy.

Drug Stories

A numerical look at medical-aid-in-dying meds.

$3,000 to $5,000: Cost for a lethal dose of Seconal (secobarbital), one of the drugs doctors can prescribe. The price for the same amount of medication was less than $200 in 2009; the drugmaker has increased the cost dramatically since then. Many insurance companies will not cover the life-ending medication.

4: Drugs that pharmacists compound to make a lower-priced alternative to Seconal. The mixture of diazepam, morphine, digoxin, and propranolol, which is reportedly just as effective as Seconal, costs closer to $500 (pre-dose medications included).

5: Ounces of solution (drugs in powder form that are dissolved in a liquid) a medical-aid-in-dying patient must ingest within about five to 10 minutes.

2: Pre-dose medications—haloperidol to calm nerves and decrease nausea and metoclopramide to act as an anti-vomiting agent—patients usually take about an hour before ingesting the fatal drugs.

10 to 20: Minutes it typically takes after the meds are ingested for a patient to fall asleep; death generally follows within one to three hours.

Uncomfortable Silence

Just because roughly 65 percent of voters approved Colorado’s End-of-Life Options Act in 2016 doesn’t mean Centennial Staters are completely at ease with the idea of the big sleep. Just ask these health care professionals and death-industry veterans.

“In a perfect world, I think one should be with family at the end. There are benefits of sitting with a dying person. Compassion means ‘to suffer with.’ Sometimes that suffering isn’t physical; it’s emotional. A lot of healing can happen at the end.”
—Dr. Michelle Stanford, pediatrician, Centennial

“If people’s existential needs and pain are addressed—things they need to talk to their doctors and family about—natural death can be a beautiful thing. It doesn’t have to be scary. In American society, we don’t talk about death and dying. It’s because we fear it. We are afraid of the anticipated pain, of having to be cared for. In other cultures, there is more family support and there is no thought of being a burden. This is a part of life, part of what should naturally happen.”
—Dr. Thomas Perille, internal medicine, Denver

Doctors don’t die like our patients do. We restrict health care at the end of our lives. My colleagues don’t do the intensive care unit and prolonged death. We, as doctors, are not doing a good job helping patients with this part of their lives. Dying in a hospital is the worst thing ever. There is an amazing difference dying at home around friends and family.”
—Dr. Cory Carroll, family practice physician, Fort Collins

“Most people are unprepared for what needs to happen when a death occurs. Those who choose to lean toward the pain with meaningful ritual or ceremony are the ones I see months later who are moving through this process toward healing. The ones who think that grief is something that occurs between our ears are the ones who struggle the most. Sadly, we live in a society and a culture where grieving and the authentic expression of emotion is sometimes looked down upon.”
—John Horan, president and CEO of Horan & McConaty Funeral Service, Denver

We only die once, so let’s do it right. When death happens, whether it’s our own or a loved one or someone we know, it’s not just their death that we’re acknowledging, but it’s life that we are all acknowledging. I think it’s helpful and healthy to honor death because in doing so, we are helping to celebrate life.”
—Brian Henderson, funeral celebrant, Denver

63 Percentage of Americans, 18 years or older, who die in hospitals and other institutional settings, like long-term care facilities and hospices. In 1949, however, statistics show that only 49.5 percent of deaths occurred in institutions. Because death in the home has become more uncommon, experts say, few Americans have direct experience with the dying process and that separation has, in part, led us to fear, misunderstand, and essentially ignore the end of life as an important stage of life itself.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; American Psychological Association

Another Shoulder To Lean On

Front Range support groups that can make bereavement more bearable. —Will Jarvis

Healthy Self. Healthy Life.

This two-therapist firm offers support sessions specifically for those in their 20s and 30s as well as an anticipatory grief gathering called Facing The Long Road. This latter group—which focuses on helping 19- to 36-year-olds manage the despair and caregiving duties that can come with having a parent with a terminal illness—zeroes in on a demographic whose busy lives often get in the way of their well-being. Cost: $35/session

The Compassionate Friends

The premise behind the Compassionate Friends, a 49-year-old international organization, is that only other bereaved parents can understand the pain of losing a child. Today, the group gathers parents, grandparents, and family members and encourages peer-to-peer healing in monthly sessions. Six Front Range chapters provide safe places for those struggling with loss to share coping mechanisms and ways to find a new normal.
Cost: Free

Judi’s House

Childhood traumas, such as losing a sibling or a close relative, can be especially challenging to overcome. That’s why this nonprofit, housed two blocks from City Park, has trained clinicians on staff to help both children and families dealing with grief. Its 10-week structured programs put kids in groups of five to 10 other children, and the organization provides a free dinner before each weekly meeting—giving anguished families one less thing to worry about.
Cost: Free

What Remains

While there are myriad ways to die, in Colorado there are only a few methods by which your body can (legally) be disposed: entombment, burial, cremation, or removal from the state. We spoke with Centennial State funeral homes and cemeteries to understand the options. Just remember: Colorado law says the written wishes of the deceased must be followed, so discuss what you want with your family ahead of time so they aren’t surprised.

Burial

Typical cost: From about $5,000 for a casket and full funeral service, plus about $5,000 for cemetery fees (plot, headstone, etc.)
What you need to know: In Colorado, a funeral home cannot move forward with a burial (or cremation or transportation across state lines) until a death certificate is on file with the county and state, which normally takes a few days. The funeral home will need information like social security numbers and the deceased’s mother’s maiden name to begin the process. Further, state law requires that if a body is not going to be buried or cremated within 24 hours, it must be either embalmed (using chemicals as a preservative) or refrigerated, so make sure your loved ones know what you prefer. Your family can opt to have your body prepared at a funeral home and then brought home for a viewing or service, though. Finally, federal law mandates that your family be given pricing details about caskets, cemetery fees, and the like before they make a decision, so they are prepared for the costs.

Cremation

Typical cost: From about $600 for transportation, refrigeration, and cremation; additional fees for urns, memorials, and/or funeral services
What you need to know: Choosing cremation does not preclude having a funeral; many people opt to have funeral services and then have the body cremated. (In this case, you’ll still need a casket, but you can rent one instead of purchasing it.) Once you’ve gone the ashes-to-ashes route, you can’t be scattered willy-nilly on federal land, in part because straight cremains are not healthy for plants. For example, your family will need to apply for a free permit—which stipulates how and where ashes can be spread—if you’d like to have your cremains placed inside Rocky Mountain National Park. The most popular national park in Colorado got more than 180 such requests last year.

Green Burial

Typical cost: From about $1,500
What you need to know: Only one Colorado cemetery (Crestone Cemetery) and handful of funeral homes (like Fort Collins’ Goes Funeral Care & Crematory) have applied for and been certified by the Green Burial Council. That doesn’t mean there aren’t various shades of “green” burial available throughout Colorado, though, at places such as Littleton’s Seven Stones Chatfield—Botanical Garden Cemetery and Lafayette’s the Natural Funeral. Among the greener ways to go: avoid embalming (so the harmful chemicals don’t seep into the ground upon decomposition); opt for a simple shroud or biodegradable casket; have your grave be dug by hand, instead of with machinery, which comes with a carbon footprint; or select a cemetery or cremation garden that uses environmentally friendlier plants for landscaping (for example, Seven Stones uses rhizomatous tall fescue for its meadow, which requires less water to maintain).

Complete Article HERE!

Death with dignity

David Price, of Westminster West, takes a walk through the backyard of his residence.

By Bob Audette

David Price is dying, but it’s not the colorectal cancer he was diagnosed with two years ago that is killing him. Doctors removed the tumor shortly after his diagnosis, but Price believes it’s only a matter of time before fate catches up with him.

Rather than let chance decree his date of death, Price, who is a psychologist with an MBA, decided to take the matter into his own hands. About a month ago, he stopped eating and next week, he stops drinking. He expects he will die a week or two thereafter. He faces his death with very little fear and a mental calmness that is peaceful and accepting.

“God has blessed me,” he said. “I have always had a deep faith. I know what’s on the other side.”

Price said he loves the life he has lived, but the current quality of his life was compromised following his cancer surgery. The surgery resulted in having what he calls “a dysfunctional rectum” and as a result, has to use a colostomy bag.

“I will never again have a normal bowel movement,” he said. “I will always wear Depends and I will always need to be close to a bathroom. If I can’t go to the bathroom properly, that’s just not a life.”

While Price said he is “supposedly cancer-free,” he has been told by his doctors he is at a high risk for a recurrence. “Plus, I have multiple health issues that could eventually kill me, including blood clots and hernias. I have epilepsy and I was falling as often as twice a day due to my medications. If I fall and crack my skull and go into a coma, where am I going to be lying for six years? Not at home. I don’t want to be in a nursing home.”

He understands that some people may judge his choice to end his life now, and many people have tried to change his mind. Price also acknowledged that while he believes he is making a rational decision based on his spiritual values and ethics, his choice is unique to him and no one else.

Act 39

In 2013, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 39, the End-of-Life Choice Law, which allowed Vermont physicians to prescribe medication to a Vermont resident with a terminal condition with the intent that the medication be self-administered for the purpose of hastening the patient’s death. Act 39 set forth conditions for the patient and doctors to be in compliance with the law, including that the patient be capable of making his or her own informed decision. But because he doesn’t have a terminal illness, Act 39 doesn’t pertain to Price.

“I don’t fit the criteria as much as my doctors might like, and they tried their best to convince me otherwise, but all of my medical providers have been supportive of my decision,” said Price, who doesn’t consider what he is doing as suicide. “It’s not extending my death.”

Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont, which successfully advocated for the passage of Act. 39, said it would be a mistake to conflate Price’s decision with suicide.

“An end-of-life decision is really different from a situation where someone is distressed or has serious depression,” she said. “There are people in the last stages of life who don’t qualify for Act 39 who have stopped eating and drinking. It’s a person’s own choice how to live their life and how to spend their last days and weeks. This is a decision that any person can make and doesn’t require Act 39 and permission from anyone.”

Walkerman said Price’s decision is a demonstration of how people take control of how they die.

“There are so many ways to prolong life as the medical community defines it,” she said. “But whether a person wants that kind of life … it doesn’t sit there in a vacuum. It’s part of the continuum of the evolution of medical care and people’s interest in personal choice.”

Rev. Audrey Walker, of the First Congregational Church in West Brattleboro, said she counseled Price on his decision, and while she advised against it, she understood why he decided the way he did.

“He has reached what I consider to be a very rational decision based on his spiritual beliefs and I support his decision,” she said.

Rev. Shawn Bracebridge, the pastor at Dummerston Congregational Church, met with Price but only as a friend, he said, and he supports Price’s decision as well.

“His decision is his and his alone and it’s grounded in his spirituality,” said Bracebridge.

Medical ethicist weighs in

Arthur L. Caplan, head of medical ethics at the NYU School of Medicine, noted that doctors are required to have a patient assessed if they believe he or she is depressed or otherwise rendered incompetent by a mental health illness.

“If that’s not a concern,” said Caplan, “if Mr. Price is rational, he retains the right to refuse medical treatment. He doesn’t have to accept intervention. In fact, he has a fundamental right to deny an act of intervention.”

Caplan noted that people make this type of decision every day, and by example referred to a Jehovah’s Witness who might refuse a blood transfusion, even knowing it’s a simple life-saving procedure.

“Mr. Price’s doctors might have a good sense that their patient is well aware of what he is doing, that he is coherent and that he is able to comprehend his choices,” said Caplan. “It is the doctor’s duty to try to talk him out of, offer pain control or tailor your care, but that doesn’t mean the patient will be persuaded.”

Caplan also noted that some people with chronic illness who take their own lives are not as deliberate as Price appears to be, who has planned his death in advance after consulting with doctors, his therapist and members of the clergy.

Even when someone has a diagnosed mental illness that is affecting his or her decisions, said Caplan, it can be very difficult to stage an intervention.

“It’s very difficult to force feed someone,” he said. “They could pull the tube out. You would probably have to tie him down. It’s very hard to do with an unwilling person.”

A doctor might refer a patient for a psychological assessment, which could result in a court hearing to decide a person’s fate, but Caplan said courts are often reluctant to get involved in end-of-life decisions.

“Our society leans very hard on honoring individual autonomy,” he said.

Just the same, doctors who are trained to preserve life at all costs do not take it lightly to step aside and let a non-terminal patient die, said Caplan.

“It’s a challenge for them, because they are thinking they can manage epilepsy and they can manage blood clots,” he said. “But they are also trained to respect a patient’s choices.”

“The real issue,” said Caplan, “is not so much is he competent, but does he need spiritual support? Is his quality of life bad because he is depressed or doesn’t have companionship? Does he have friends and a social life?”

If anything that can still be expected from Price’s doctors, said Caplan, is that they stay in contact with their patient and keep checking with him in case he changes his mind and needs medical care.

“I couldn’t have been evaluated more in the past two years,” said Price. “If I was suicidal I wouldn’t be doing this right now.”

Price said his own decision has been informed by his years of practice — especially in the days when there was no treatment for HIV/AIDS — helping people confront their own mortality and helping them “untangle suicide from their sincere desire to end their lives. Most were facing horrible continued pain and suffering.”

‘We don’t know how to live in this world’

Price, originally of Dallas, moved to New England 16 years ago with his then-husband, Michael Lefebvre, to be closer to Lefebvre’s parents, who were ill. They lived in Gardner, Mass., until their divorce in 2008, when Price moved to what he calls his “mountain home” in Westminster West.

“I had all these wonderful plans for retirement,” he said. Instead, said Price, since his surgery he has been diving into his spirituality, studying up on Buddhism and Christianity.

“It’s helped me to realize this is all an illusion,” he said. “All of these material things we grab on to, that we think bring happiness, they don’t bring happiness; they bring us pleasure, momentary pleasure. But they also bring us pain and cost a lot of money. We don’t know how to live in this world. We copy others. I went through all that. I know the lifestyle and it did not lead to happiness.”

Though he has always been a spiritual man, he was not a regular attendee of church. His parents, who still live in Dallas, are Southern Baptists, a denomination with which Price has issues.

“There is a lot of negativity,” he said. “I don’t believe in hate. They don’t call it hate. They think they sit in judgment of the world.”

His parents also did not accept the fact that he is gay. “My family was disappointed in my whole life, not becoming a Baptist and becoming a psychiatrist. To them, mental illness is a sin that can be prayed away.”

The United Church of Christ accepts him as he is, said Price.

“They also accepted me as someone who sees ghosts,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be accepted, but they were like, ‘Yeah, Jesus saw and spoke to spirits.'”

Price firmly believes that all humans have psychic abilities, but not everyone chooses to accept that or practice those abilities and he also believes humans need to be physically close to the earth, touching it with bare flesh as often as possible.

“There is so much energy from nature that we are blocking with our concrete and steel,” he said, which is another reason he wants to die in his mountaintop home and not in a hospital or a nursing home. “I want to be here where I am absorbing the energy.”

‘A very spiritual man’

Price granted his therapist, Supriya Shanti, permission to speak with the Reformer. Shanti has been his therapist since the time Price was diagnosed with cancer.

She said his decision to end his life is not out of character, nor does she believe is it influenced by any mental health issues.

“He is a very spiritual man,” said Shanti. “His decision is a result of his connection to his spirituality, the spirit world and god and his trust and faith in that.”

Shanti noted that Price is a well-respected therapist in his own right and his decision has been informed by his years of offering counseling to his own patients.

“It’s his personal choice,” she said. “Given how he’s been fighting for two years and continues to suffer due to his medical issues, I think it’s his right to choose for himself and I support his choice.”

However, on both a professional and personal level, Shanti said she wrestled with Price’s decision.

“I definitely feel sad on a personal level,” she said. “Professionally, it creates some conflict, because I don’t know if we kept working together, maybe he would make a different decision. But the bottom line is, whoever shows up in my office, it’s my job to support and guide them. I help empower people to make their own decisions.”

Shanti also encouraged people to call and visit Price before he dies, rather than wish they had done so after he is dead.

“David wants company and wants honest conversation,” she said. “Now is the time to visit. It’s really important, especially in the last days of life on this physical plane, to be surrounded by people who love you.”

A necessary discussion

Walkerman said Act 39 and people like Price have ignited a discussion that has been a long time coming.

“He had a discussion with his family, his doctors, clergy,” she said. “A lot of people have trouble even starting these conversations. Any story helps illustrate for people how to have those discussions, rather than suffering alone, thinking they have no choice.”

“It’s important for people who are facing health and emotional crises to take a lesson from this in that you can reach out and get support for your spiritual and emotional needs,” said Susie Webster Toleno, the pastor at the Congregational Church of Westminster West. She said that while she didn’t counsel Price on his decision, they discussed the spiritual aspects of his illness and end of life. “There are people who will answer your phone call, who will listen and provide support,” she said.

Toleno said those people include local clergy members and organizations such as the Brattleboro Area Hospice, at 802-257-0775 (Brattleboro area) 802-460-1142 (Greater Falls area) or brattleborohospice.org.

“Brattleboro Area Hospice has a lot of support for people who are in tough health situations, even if they don’t qualify for hospice,” she said.

Price said if, when he first received his cancer diagnosis, he had the knowledge he has today, he might have chosen not to have surgery to remove the cancer from his body.

“It would have been quick and easy and now here I am, extending my death. But I suspected I wasn’t going to survive. Maybe my family needed time to accept that and maybe I had amends to make. I did a lot of forgiveness work, which is the most important thing.”

If there is one last notion he would like folks to consider challenging it’s the belief that all the world is knowable.

“What we think we know it probably not even one-thousandth of what it out there,” said Price, especially when it comes to spirituality. “Philosophers have been arguing about does God exist for forever. To think that you are smarter than Plato, to me that is intellectual arrogance. Even Einstein said ‘The more I study science, the more I believe in God.'”

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