How California doctors are fixing how we die

Doctors change life-ending drugs to ease the final hours

Dr. Lonny Shavelson

By

Modern medicine excels in ways to save a beating heart.

Yet hardly anything is known about how to humanely stop one.

Frustrated by the dearth of information about how to aid dying, Berkeley’s Dr. Lonny Shavelson is gathering data to guide other physicians through this new, important and sorrowful clinical frontier. Legalized in 2015, California’s End of Life Option Act allows doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients.

“We’re doing a medical procedure. And whatever is done in medicine should be done well, and consistently,” said Shavelson, 68, a UC San Francisco-educated former Emergency Room physician.

“Now we can tell patients: ‘We’re giving you the best protocol we have,’ ” said Shavelson, whose Bay Area End of Life Options medical practice has overseen 232 deaths. “And we’re getting better and better.”

When Californians passed the medical aid-in-dying law – inspired by Oakland’s Brittany Maynard, San Mateo’s Jennifer Glass and others who sought to end their suffering from cancer – voters assumed it promised them a neat Shakespearean-styled ending, like Romeo’s quick poisoning in Verona. That was the goal, but it didn’t always happen.

A little-known secret, not publicized by advocates of aid-in-dying, was that while most deaths were speedy, others were very slow. Some patients lingered for six or nine hours; a few, more than three days. No one knew why, or what needed to change.

“The public thinks that you take a pill and you’re done,” said Dr. Gary Pasternak, chief medical officer of Mission Hospice in San Mateo. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

So Shavelson, in collaboration with Washington-based retired anesthesiologist Dr. Carol Parrot, set out to compile data to help doctors help their patients. At a UC Berkeley-based conference last February, they co-founded the American Clinicians Academy on Medical Aid in Dying. The Academy’s 240 clinicians are now contributing and sharing their own experiences.

Dr. Lonny Shavelson, of Bay Area End of Life Options, looks over data at his home office in Berkeley, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Shavelson is leading a data collection project to learn what medications most quickly and gently bring the person to their requested death under the 2016 End of Life Options Act.

To each deathbed, seated with grieving family members, Shavelson brings a clipboard with drug names and dosage levels.

As minutes tick by, he measures falling oxygen levels, slowing cardiac rhythms and fading respiration. He tracks outcomes while providing care.

The pharmacologic findings, shared with clinicians nationwide, are dramatically reducing the incidence of long, lingering and wrenching deaths.

“It’s really helpful to have someone actually studying the utility of what it is we’re doing,” said Pasternak. “So much of what we’re doing has arisen empirically. He’s collected such great data.”

“Patients want a medication that is effective. They want a swift, peaceful death,” he said.

Using the initial drug regimen in place when the law was passed, 34% of all patients took longer than two hours to die; one man died after 11 hours. A second regimen reduced that to 20%. With the current protocol, fewer than 10% of patients take longer than two hours to die, and most patients die in 1.1 hours, on average.

The protracted deaths didn’t create suffering for patients; they are in a deep coma. But the lengthy vigils can be agonizing for loved ones.

“After two hours, people were starting to get concerned, and restless,” Shavelson said. They wonder what’s happening. People start walking around the room, going into the kitchen. It disrupts the meditative mood. Between two and four hours – that’s not ideal. Anything over four hours we consider to be problematic.”

“I was looking at what was happening and thinking: ‘This isn’t as good as it’s been hyped up to be,’ ” he said.

There’s no repository of information to help doctors in states that have passed aid-in-dying laws, representing 22% of the U.S. population. The U.S. National Institutes of Health won’t fund the research. Medical schools don’t teach it. Hospitals don’t oversee it. Without that official support, medical journals won’t publish any findings.

Traditional medical research is conducted at universities and medical schools, “and they won’t touch the topic,” said Shavelson. “They’ve completely abrogated their responsibility to patients who are dying … bowing out of their traditional role of teaching, research and providing quality care. It’s taboo. There’s still a stigma.”

When aid-in-dying was first passed in Oregon in 1997, patients were given secobarbital, sold under the brand name Seconal. It induces deep sleep, then a coma that is so deep that the brain no longer drives respiration.

But that drug wasn’t consistently quick. Then it became prohibitively expensive, finally unavailable.

To replace Seconal, the doctors invented a three-drug cocktail — a painkiller, sedative and a heart-slowing agent — based on their experiences with overdose deaths. They later added another cardiac drug. But problems remained.

While sitting at the bedsides of several six-hour deaths, Shavelson pondered what was going wrong. He speculated that one cardiac drug was rendered ineffective by the large quantities of the other drugs. So he separated that out and gave it earlier, so it had time to act.

When some delays persisted, he replaced one of the heart-slowing drugs for a heart-damaging drug.

Based on newly compiled data from Academy clinicians, the formula is about to be improved again, pending confirmation of results.

Shavelson and Parrot have identified which patients are more likely to linger, and can recommend adjustments. People with gastrointestinal cancer, for example, don’t absorb the drugs as well. Former opiate users often have resistance to some of the drugs. Young people and athletes tend to have stronger hearts and can survive longer with low respiration rates.

“We’re learning. Hypothesis, data and confirmation. This is what science is,” he said. “Our job is to stop the heart; that’s what they want us to do.

“We haven’t made it less sad. It’s still death. There’s tears and crying,” he said. “But it’s a better ending.”

Complete Article HERE!

How medical assistance in dying law has affected my family

-A caregiver’s perspective

A Quebec judge ruled last year that parts of the federal law on medically assisted dying were unconstitutional because of restrictions placed on eligibility, and on Feb. 24 this year the federal government tabled proposed amendments.

MAID isn’t about hypothetical cases in an academic debate, it’s about real people who are suffering

By Jason LeBlanc

Accessibility issues around medical assistance in dying in Canada are often spoken about within the parameters of “slippery slopes,” bioethical arguments with no clear answer given, and the discriminatory unfairness currently upheld by MAID legislation.

What often gets forgotten is that MAID isn’t about hypothetical cases in an academic debate, it’s about people. Real people who are suffering.

Chapter 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

In other words, every Canadian has control over their own life.

In this spirit, you have the right to make decisions on your health, medical care, and bodily integrity. When a Canadian is compelled to take their life through violent, unpredictable, and dangerous means, because the government refuses to allow them the control and choice of a medically assisted death, it is a violation of those Charter guarantees.

The current federal MAID legislation was ruled unconstitutional last year because of restrictions it placed on eligibility, and on Feb. 24 this year the government tabled proposed amendments. While they expand eligibility to a small degree, the changes still fall short of the mark for many Canadians.

The federal government has unveiled its plans to expand access to medically assisted dying after public consultations. 2:01

My family is one that has been affected directly as a result of the government restricting MAID access to a select few. I am a caregiver to a wonderful woman, my common-law partner, who has been attempting to access a medically assisted death for more than two years now.

The restrictions put into the original Bill C-14 and not properly addressed in the proposed Bill C-7 have made it an absolute hell for her in terms of trying to have her Charter rights respected.

With the help of Dying with Dignity and Ontario’s care co-ordination service, she has received three independent assessments. She has fulfilled the entirety of the MAID criteria with the exception of not having a “reasonably foreseeable death,” however one chooses to define that term.

Of course, under Bill C-7’s proposed amendments, an applicant no longer has to be facing a reasonably foreseeable death to apply for MAID. But this doesn’t inherently mean that it will be a simple, straightforward process to qualify. As the Department of Justice puts it: “While ‘reasonable foreseeability of natural death’ is removed as an eligibility criterion in the proposed legislation, it is kept as a way of deciding which procedural safeguards will be applied to MAID requests.”

My partner’s diagnosis is treatment-resistant fibromyalgia, an often poorly understood form of chronic pain involving a cluster of symptoms that affect the whole body outwards from the central nervous system. Despite the fact that her pain is unrelenting, constant, intolerable, and irremediable, her diagnosis does not put her on track to a naturally shortened life span.

It is this factor that has excluded her from MAID for more than two years.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti explains who can perform an expert assessment for medical assistance in dying. (The MAID town hall was recorded March 5, 2020.) 0:49

For years we’ve done everything possible to improve her quality of life and to control her pain. She’s tried over 30 medications, undergone extensive hospital testing, tried various forms of physiotherapy as well as non-traditional medicines and therapies, and been seen by five independent pain specialists.

The decision that was arrived at, to seek MAID, is not emotional, unreasonable, or lacking in proper mental capacity in any way.

The amendments in Bill C-7 would potentially allow her access to a medically assisted death, but under a new set of conditions. Instead of empowering Canadians to have the autonomy to make their choice, the power – nearly all of it – still lies in the hands of assessors, providers and practitioners.

One of the two independent MAID assessors who determines eligibility must have expertise in the condition that’s causing the person’s suffering. I am thankful we don’t live in a rural community where little specialized expertise exists or where access to it is subject to a waiting period of months or years. But even so, it’s still unclear whether such an expert exists for my partner’s specific condition and/or how that expert’s personal feelings about MAID might influence such a decision.

Under Bill C-7, there is also now a minimum of 90 days for the assessment of a MAID request. Justice Minister David Lametti refers to this not as a “period of reflection,” as it was called under the existing law, but rather a “period of assessment.” Regardless of what it’s called, this means a longer wait. Before, the “reflection period” was only 10 days.

Under the amended legislation my partner fulfills a criterion that will on one hand deem her suffering “intolerable,” and on the other, ask her to tolerate said suffering for at least another three months — with the potential outcome that she’ll still be denied MAID at the end of the assessment period. A cruel reward.

Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti explains why the 90-day period mandated by the government for MAID is one of assessment, and not a period of waiting. (The MAID town hall was recorded March 5, 2020.) 0:55

As a caregiver, I am left here to watch.

I am powerless. I cannot cure her pain, nor can I stop her suffering. I hear her demands for MAID, but I cannot provide her with assistance in death. I also do not have any answers about why the government believes it is their decision — and not hers — that she continue living despite it being clearly against her will.

It has been a very, very long couple of years waiting for the government to advance, converse, and evolve on this legislation. The government’s rules on MAID have left her to suffer, for suffering’s sake. It is by miracle of her own strength and sheer determination that she is still here, and that I have not woken up one morning to discover that she’s attempted to take her own life.

In statements made to the media, I see our federal Justice Minister David Lametti and Health Minister Patty Hadju continue to use terms like “safeguards” to hide restrictions and “respect of individual autonomy” to hide exclusion. They say, “protect the vulnerable.”

To this, I say my common-law partner is the most vulnerable person I know. Look at what the government has done to her. The trauma they have forced her to endure is nearly unforgivable.

Canadians put their questions about MAID to the experts, including Federal Justice Minister, David Lametti. Hosted by The National’s Andrew Chang. 44:27

My experience is not unique. Many Canadian families are facing the same dynamics. There are cases of Canadians who have died by suicide after being denied a medically assisted death. These are stories that do not fit into the narrative the government has positioned around medical assistance in dying.

The undignified manner of these deaths is entirely avoidable, and these are only some of the cases we know about. How many have suffered, and are still suffering silently, is unclear.

From disabled Canadians wanting MAID access, to people with chronic pain, to those suffering with treatment-resistant depression and other forms of mental illness, the government’s message with the Bill C-7 amendments is, “We know better and we aren’t willing to grant you the autonomy to make your own choice.”

This brings us back to the Charter, Chapter 7, and the right to life, liberty, and security. I don’t remember seeing anywhere that Chapter 7 was optional. Why does the government think so?

The government and MPs on all sides have shown a lack of leadership on this issue, and seemingly refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their vote on MAID for those who are suffering.

The Quebec court decision that motivated the introduction of Bill C-7 was rendered in September of last year. The most recent extension provided by the Quebec Superior Court to revise the existing MAID policies has provided the government with a new deadline of Dec. 18, 2020. This is the second such extension, and will mark 15 months since the original court decision with no change produced as of yet.

As the government moves forward with the proposed MAID amendments and with no details on re-scheduling the parliamentary review that was originally planned for June, this speaks volumes for how our government views revising medical assistance in dying.

It is imperative that our elected officials consider the impact their restrictions, which they’ve falsely maintained are fair and balanced, have on real Canadians. Legislation carries with it consequences, and the failures of the last government’s attempt at equitable MAID cannot be repeated.

his is Canada’s opportunity to fix MAID. My family and others are watching intently.

Complete Article HERE!

When ‘content’ means choosing the day you die

Lynn Kennedy Ottawa in apartment on Wednesday Feb 5, 2020.

By Kelly Egan

One day last week, Lynn Kennedy finally got the medical news that would end her chronic pain and stop the many-sided suffering she has endured for nearly 10 years.

Doctors agreed to help her die.

Kennedy, 58, had been trying for months to have a medically assisted death and went public with her wishes in February to draw attention to a major barrier in Canada’s regulations.

Applicants could only be approved if their death was “reasonably foreseeable” and, at the time, hers was not, leaving her to cope with years, possibly decades, of declining physical and mental health.

“I’m not me anymore,” was the devastating way she expressed her station in life.

Kennedy, a former administrator with the Ottawa Police Services Board, had been battling a condition called transverse myelitis, a disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord and one that can mimic the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.Over a decade, her mobility was gradually reduced to the point that she went from using a cane to an electric wheelchair. She was unable to get out of bed or get to the washroom and, in 2019, moved to a retirement home where she needed support for daily living.

A severe gastro-intestinal blockage landed her in hospital in May. An attempt to give her liquid medicine via a “nasty and uncomfortable” feeding tube earlier this month did not go well, as she has a strong gag reflex.

“That lasted about a day,” she said in an interview from her fifth-floor bed at The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus. “I just started screaming, ‘I’m done, I’m done, get it out, I’m done.’”

Because the consensus from two doctors was that the upper-tract blockage — left untreated — would bring about her death in fairly short order, her MAiD, or medically assisted death application, was approved.

Kennedy died in hospital Tuesday, but not before reinforcing her message about the program’s shortcomings.

“I shouldn’t have to wait for someone that I don’t know, didn’t know, and never met, to decide my fate,” she said in a final interview.

“Let it be the patient’s choice. Don’t let a stranger decide.”

Though she worries for her daughter Courtney, 37, and two grandchildren, Kennedy said her strongest reaction to being approved was relief.

“When I heard I was accepted, it was a big sigh and I thanked (the doctor).”

*

Two hours after, Courtney called with the news, pulled over by the side of the road. Her mother went peacefully, in a matter of minutes, before the clock struck noon.

“I’m relieved for her. We had a great last couple of days together and even better final moments.” Lynn’s older sister Gail was also present. That morning, medical staff came by, saying they had learned a good deal about her rare condition, MAiD and the force of one patient’s courage.

The night before, Kennedy received some welcome news. A genetic researcher in the United States said he would be anxious to have spinal cord samples from her, to better study transverse myelitis and help develop treatment options.

It was the first time, Courtney was told, that such a sample would be received by Harvard University’s medical school.“It was a really, really great thing for mom to hear. She always wanted to help somebody or help with something when she went.”Her eyes were also donated. Her mother’s determination to control her own outcome never wavered, Courtney added.

“She absolutely, 100 per cent had no regrets,” she said. “We both said the most perfect things to each other right at the end.”

Among the last things her mother said was “thank you.”

*

Kennedy spoke of the long stretches she has spent in hospital during the last several years, each stay leaving her a little more diminished, the 30 pills she took daily, the loss of independence, the reliance on a call button for basic needs.

“Every time I go in the hospital, I lose something. Every time, and that goes back four years,” she said.After first applying in December, she met all of the MAiD requirements except for the “foreseeable” clause and initially even had a date picked out — Feb. 8 — when her request was denied.

Lynn Kennedy in her apartment in Ottawa Wednesday Feb 5, 2020.

Kennedy went public with her concerns in a story by this newspaper at a time when the federal government was — and still is — proposing changes to the Criminal Code provisions that permit medically assisted death in this country.The revisions were needed after a Quebec Superior Court ruled the “reasonably foreseeable” requirement was a violation of a person’s constitutional rights. The court ordered Parliament to amend the law by July 11.

A spokesman for the Justice department said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for legislators to meet the deadline and an extension to Dec. 18 has been sought in a court motion. More than 6,700 Canadians have had a medically assisted death since the law came into effect in 2016.Among many changes, the “reasonably foreseeable” section of the law is being rewritten to give patients more control of the timing. The issue of “advanced consent” is also being addressed, in cases where individuals lose mental capacity in the course of their illness.Kennedy, a single mother who admitted to feelings of “cold heartedness” in this seven-month process, said she was not afraid of dying.

“No. Nobody knows where we’re going.”She spent her final days in the company of her daughter and sister and, even in her final hours, never lost her sense of humour. (The food at the General campus, she said, was “gross,” and of her iron-resolve to have an assisted death, she said: “I made two doctors cry today.” No mention, meanwhile, of the grizzled scribbler, wiping something from his eye.)“I’ve been isolating myself for the last year and a half,” she said of tidying up loose ends. “I’m quite content.”We do not doubt her on that point. She had, after all, the final say.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying virtually

– Pandemic drives medically assisted deaths online

The late Youssef Cohen moved from New York to Oregon in 2016 because of its aid-in-dying law. During the pandemic, assisted dying for terminal patients has gone online.

By

The coronavirus has stripped many of a say in the manner and timing of their own deaths, but for some terminally ill people wishing to die, a workaround exists. Medically assisted deaths in America are increasingly taking place online, from the initial doctor’s visit to the ingestion of life-ending medications.

Assisted dying laws allow terminally ill, mentally competent patients in 10 U.S. jurisdictions to hasten the end of their life. Waiting periods of 15 to 20 days mean that patients with acute COVID-19 won’t likely meet the requirements of these laws.

But the move to digitally assisted deaths during the pandemic has enabled other qualified patients to continue to exercise the right to die. While telemedicine is helping some people die on their own terms, it also makes the process harder on family members, who must now take a more active role in their loved one’s final act.

Assisted dying in America

I have spent the last four years studying assisted dying in America, particularly in Oregon and Washington, which have the country’s longest-standing assisted dying laws. California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey and Vermont also allow medical assistance in dying.

A quirk in these laws has enabled the process to go virtual. While extremely restrictive in most ways, U.S. assisted dying laws don’t require a physician or other health care provider to be present at an assisted death.

Assisted dying laws require two doctors to independently evaluate a patient’s request for medical assistance in dying. But patients must be physically able to ingest the life-ending medication themselves, a safeguard that ensures they are acting voluntarily.

In Canada, by contrast, clinicians typically administer the lethal dose through an injection. Normally that’s a faster, safer and more effective method. But COVID-19 concerns are compelling some Canadian providers to suspend assisted deaths.

Attending to the dying

Though U.S. physicians aren’t required to attend an assisted death, many patients and their families do have help. In 2019, according to the Oregon Health Authority, 57% of all assisted deaths in Oregon were attended by a physician, another health care provider or a volunteer.

Trained volunteers – many of them former nurses, social workers and behavioral health experts – are critical in helping patients navigate the tricky path toward an assisted death. They know which physicians are willing to see aid-in-dying patients and which pharmacies stock the necessary medications.

In the United States, doctors prescribe a compound of four drugs – digoxin, diazepam, morphine and amitriptyline – to be mixed with water or juice. Within minutes of drinking the cocktail, the patient falls asleep, the sleep progresses to a coma, and eventually the patient’s heart stops.

Volunteers help mix the medication and supervise the ingestion, allowing families to be emotionally present with a dying loved one.

Now, because of the coronavirus, volunteers are accompanying patients and families over Zoom, and physicians complete their evaluations through telemedicine, based on recommendations released by the American Clinicians Academy on Medical Aid in Dying in March 2020.

Telehealth – a health care solution long used in remote areas – has become a critical tool of the COVID-19 pandemic. But some aid-in-dying physicians have drawn on telemedicine to reach far-flung patients for years.

“My patients love telemedicine,” Dr. Carol Parrot, a physician who lives on an island in Washington, told me during a Skype interview in 2018. “They love that they don’t have to get dressed. They don’t have to get into a car and drive 25 miles and meet a new doctor and sit in a waiting room.”

Parrot says she sees 90% of her patients online, visually examining a patient’s symptoms, mobility, affect and breathing.

“I can get a great deal of information for how close a patient is to death from a Skype visit,” Parrot explained. “I don’t feel badly at all that I don’t have a stethoscope on their chest.”

After the initial visit, whether in person or online, aid-in-dying physicians carefully collate their prognosis with the patient’s prior medical records and lab tests. Some also consult the patient’s primary physician.

‘Tough and tender situations’

The pivot to telemedicine hasn’t significantly changed that process. But patient advocacy organizations and physicians say the pandemic has amplified existing problems of access to assisted dying.

“These are tough and tender situations even without COVID,” said Judy Kinney, executive director of the volunteer organization End of Life Washington, via email.

Invariably, some terminally ill patients who wish to die face barriers. Some assisted living and nursing facilities have policies against assisted dying for religious reasons.

During the pandemic, residents in these institutions who lack access to a digital device – or the skills to videoconference with a doctor – may not be able to qualify for the law, according to Dr. Tony Daniels, a prescribing physician from Portland.

Meanwhile, a family member who objects to assisted dying may more easily undercut the process when a volunteer isn’t there in person to make sure a patient’s final wishes are carried out.

Facilitating death

Dying via telemedicine can be hard even on family members who stand behind their loved one’s decision, my research finds. Without a volunteer or physician present, families must assume a more active role in the dying process.

That includes mixing the life-ending medications themselves. Pre-pandemic, many families told me that preparing the lethal cocktail would make them feel like they were facilitating – and not just morally supporting – a loved one’s death. They were glad to outsource this delicate task.

Now they don’t have that choice.

Yet the option to assist in a loved one’s final act may be a comfort in this pandemic. It allows dying people to choose the manner and timing of their own death – and ensures they won’t be alone.

Complete Article HERE!

I’m an oncologist with terminal cancer, and I support medical aid in dying.

Here’s why.

As my cancers progress, I want to be in charge. I want the legal option to die, if need be, before it is too late to consent to my own death.

By Dr. Tom R. Fitch

Remarkable advances in medical care are helping us live longer. But that means there also are an increasing number of people living with advancing serious illness.

The vast majority understand they are living with a terminal condition, yet they and their families are unprepared for the final stages of life. Relatively few have had discussions with their physicians about their prognosis and end-of-life care options. Their wishes and goals are not discussed, and no meaningful informed consent regarding further disease-directed treatments is provided.

“Let’s try this,” becomes the default recommendation, and patients are commonly led down a path of relentless disease-directed therapies of limited to no benefit. Tragically, more treatment too often results in more suffering and shortened survival.

With the expert end-of-life care currently available, dying and death can be meaningful and peaceful for many. But to believe all deaths are “natural” – peaceful and without suffering – is just wrong.

I cared for patients with cancer for more than 30 years and increasingly provided palliative and hospice care over the final 17 years of my career. I saw agonizing deaths despite my best efforts, and it was not rare for patients to ask me how I might help accelerate their dying. That, however, was not an option in either Minnesota or Arizona where I practiced.

Patients must understand their options

Now, I too am faced with terminal illness. I have multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and despite aggressive care, I have not achieved remission. My cancers are incurable.

I contemplate dying and my death and those thoughts include consideration of medical aid in dying. I do not know if I would ever self-administer a lethal dose of medications, but I pray that the option is available for me.

I do know that we must help patients and families overcome the taboo of discussing their prognosis, dying and death. We need to facilitate meaningful end-of-life care conversations among patients, their families and health-care providers; promote the completion of advance directives; and encourage discussions of patients’ wishes, goals and values.

Patients and families must be informed of the many end-of-life care options available – including the expertise of palliative care and hospice providers, discussions regarding the possibility of stopping disease-directed therapies, withholding or withdrawing more advanced supportive care and/or devices, voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, and palliative sedation.

Patients near the end of their life also should have access to medical aid in dying (MAID).

What medical aid in dying laws do

I fully respect the conscience of those who oppose MAID; they are opposed for passionately held personal beliefs and values. I simply ask that they similarly respect my strongly held beliefs and values.

Guidance in the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics understands this divide: “it encompasses the irreducible moral tension at stake for physicians with respect to participating in assisted suicide. Supporters and opponents share a fundamental commitment to values of care, compassion, respect, and dignity; they diverge in drawing different moral conclusions from those underlying values in equally good faith.”

MAID is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, available to more than 70 million residents. After nearly 50 years of real-word experience, there has been no evidence of the “slippery slope” or “increased societal risk” opponents routinely cite.

We have seen no indication of a heightened risk for women, the elderly, poorly educated, the disabled, minorities, minor or those with mental illness. There has been no rising incidence of casual deaths and no evidence to suggest that MAID has harmed the integrity of medicine or end-of-life care.

MAID laws clearly provide adequate safeguards and allow for the position of dissenting physicians. The laws respect their conscience and give the right to any physician not to participate.

This is patient-centered care

Those of us who support MAID are asking for the same – respect for our conscience and considered judgment. We do not believe we are doing harm. We are caring for a competent adult who has a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less. We are providing patient-centered care consistent with the patient’s wishes, goals, beliefs and values – helping that patient avoid protracted, refractory and avoidable suffering.

One false narrative espoused by opponents – that “participation in MAID is suicide” – needs to be addressed. Participants do not want to die. They have a progressive terminal illness, and meaningful, prolonged survival is no longer an option.

They have full mental capacity with an understanding of their disease, its expected course and their prognosis. They have the support of their family. They feel their personhood is being destroyed by their illness, and they want their death to be meaningful and peaceful.

None of this is true for people who die by suicide.

Personally, I no longer struggle with the ethics, morality and other controversies surrounding MAID. Ethical principles and moral laws alone are just not sufficient to answer the complex questions surrounding an individual’s dying and death.

Our diverse country and our Constitution forbid us from imposing our own religious and faith beliefs on others. When we try, we are forcing others to conform to our beliefs and we are turning a blind eye from truly seeing the very real human suffering that is in front of us.

It is devastating for patients if we ignore their life stories, their family, their culture, and the impact of their disease and treatment on their life and well-being. The value of their life, as they define it, has vanished and they want to die on their own terms.

This is not a challenge to God’s divine sovereignty but a challenge to the disease itself. Patients are vowing that it will no longer be in charge.

As my cancers progress, I too want to be in charge. I want the legal option to die, if need be, before it is too late to consent to my own death. I desperately want to avoid recruitment into that borderland where I would vegetate as neither here nor there.

I ask for your unconditional trust and I ask that those opposed to MAID for themselves, respect my prayerful discernment and personal requests for end-of-life care as I believe it is consistent with my needs, beliefs and values.

Complete Article HERE!

Physician Aid in Dying Used Mostly by White Patients

By Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

In the United States, medical aid in dying (MAID) is used mostly by white patients, even after states with more racially and ethnically diverse populations legalized the practice.

Pondering why this is the case were speakers here at the National Clinicians Conference on Medical Aid in Dying (NCCMAID) 2020 during a session on ethnic and cultural considerations in aid in dying.

Factors such as culture and religious beliefs may play a role in preventing some individuals from considering this option, but a 2019 survey from the California Health Care Foundation found that there was support for MAID among African Americans.

“When asked if race and ethnicity prevented you from getting the services and healthcare you needed, 43% of black respondents said yes, that it has happened to them,” said Thalia DeWolf, RN, CHPN, clinical coordinator, Bay Area End of Life Options, Berkeley, California.

“But when asked if they would support the right to die when terminally ill, 70% of blacks and 82% of whites said yes,” said DeWolf.

“This is surprising, since it is almost at the level of the general population, and given the unequal access to medical care and unequal outcomes, they still believe that medical aid in dying should be legal,” she continued.

“We don’t bring this up to suggest complacency, but it brings up some interesting conversation to be had,” she added.

A recent study found that in Oregon and Washington, the two states where the practice has been legal for the longest period, most patients were non-Hispanic white individuals with some level of college education (JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2:e198648.)

In 2016, MAID became legal in California, a state with a much larger and far more diverse population compared to Oregon and Washington. Even so, about 88% of people who use California’s physician-assisted death law are white, according to 2018 data from the California Department of Public Health.

Speaking to Patients

There is an overall lack of participation by black patients in all programs related to end-of-life care, noted Tracey Bush, MSW, LCSW, regional practice leader, End of Life Option Act Program, Kaiser Permanente, Southern California.

“This includes aid in dying, and we consider this lack to be a healthcare disparity,” she said.

“We would be remiss to look at the disparities and participation in these programs without thinking about the disparities in the rest of our healthcare system,” she explained. “We need to think about where the line can be drawn between education, empowerment, and recruitment,” she explained.

From a programmatic perspective, she pointed out, information, pamphlets, and staffing are designed in a way that couches the MAID decision as individualistic, but not all patients have this point of view.

“My argument is that this population doesn’t really view medical decision making in that manner,” she said. “So are we designing our materials and having conversations in a way that really speaks to these patients?”

She also emphasized the need for a diverse care team across the board with regard to ideas, perspectives, cultural beliefs, gender, and ethnicity.

Complete Article HERE!

The State of the Medical Aid-in-Dying Debate

Diane Rehm updates us in her new book, ‘When My Time Comes’

Diane Rehm spoke during her book kickoff event Feb. 3, 2020, at the Sixth & I synagogue in Washington D.C.

By Richard Harris

Maybe, just maybe, America’s greatest taboo — talking openly about death — is itself dying a slow death. Too slow, if you ask Diane Rehm, author of the new nonfiction book, When My Time Comes.

“Until we overcome our fear about talking about death,” the longtime NPR host says, “few of us can have the end of life we envision. We’ve been so focused on living and accomplishing and moving forward that we don’t think about death as part of life.”

For 37 years, Rehm’s morning talk show — first on Washington, D.C.’s public radio station WAMU, then on NPR — allowed her to focus on living, accomplishing and moving forward. But that changed as she witnessed her husband of 54 years, John, decline to the point where he pleaded with his doctor to prescribe him a medication to end his life. And without a medical aid-in-dying law in Maryland, his doctor refused.

So, John Rehm, wracked by Parkinson’s disease, with a severely diminished quality of life, decided to starve himself to death. No water. No food. No medication. It would take him 10 days to die.

And that began Diane Rehm’s journey into advocacy. After signing off her talk show in 2016, she has immersed herself in the world of the terminally ill and studying the limited options available to those for whom palliative care (focused on relieving pain and symptoms) is not the solution to their end-of-life misery.

“We focus so much on happiness and joy surrounding birth, but we think about death as this place no one wants to go — but we’re all going there. Everybody is,” says Rehm in her office at WAMU, where she hosts the podcast “On My Mind.” A February 2019 episode discussed end-of-life issues and why so many people’s end-of-life wishes are not realized.

Discussing Aid in Dying

For several years, Rehm, 83, has crisscrossed the country, speaking to the terminally ill and their families, as well as advocates and opponents of medical aid in dying. She also talked to ethicists and physicians on both sides of the issue. It’s all part of an emerging national conversation about the right to die that Rehm has captured in her new book.

A companion public TV documentary of the same name as her book to be presented by WETA in Washington, D.C., is due out in the spring of 2021, and is being shown at festivals. See the trailer here.

During a speaking engagement in a church in Falmouth, Mass., Rehm asked audience members to raise their hands if, “you are one of those people who is not going to die.” Not a hand went up, of course, and it provoked a lot of nervous laughter.

Some of the crowd had gathered at that church for a “death café,” part of a movement that began in Europe in 2004 in which people of all ages talk candidly about dying, their fears and hopes for the end of life. It’s a sign that America’s reluctance to bring death out of the shadows may be fading.

The medical aid-in-dying movement for the terminally ill — some call it death with dignity —began in Oregon in 1994. It took another 14 years for Washington state to pass its law. “But since then, Montana (2009 State Supreme Court ruling), Vermont, California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine have followed suit.

Each jurisdiction allows a patient who has no more than six months to live (certified by two physicians) to request a lethal dose of medication as long as that person has the capacity to decide and can self-administer.

Changing Minds on Medical Aid in Dying

More than a dozen other states are considering such a law, including Maryland, where Rehm testified last year in support of medical aid in dying. The bill lost by a single vote in the state Senate. But supporters, including the bill’s sponsor, the Maryland House of Delegates’ Shane Pendergrass, are optimistic that the End of Life Option Act will pass this year.

“Everyone is one bad death away from supporting the bill,” Pendergrass, a Democrat from Howard County, said during a news conference in January 2019.

Case in point: Maryland Del. Eric Luedtke, a Democrat from Maryland’s Montgomery County, who originally opposed the legislation. “The two biggest things that gave me pause were the concern about normalizing suicide (three of his family members had attempted suicide) and that some folks in the disabilities community believed aid in dying could be abused,” he told Rehm, who included his comments in her book.

Then, Luedtke’s mother, stricken with esophageal cancer, was in extreme pain — even with palliative care. A few days before she died, “she got the bottle of liquid morphine she had been prescribed, tried to drink it, tried to commit suicide,” he said.

A few months after his mother died, Luedtke signed on to the bill. “I began to question whether I had the right as an elected official, or even as her next of kin, to make that decision (of whether she could use a lethal prescription),” he said. “I think her death would have been less painful and there would have been more closure, had that option been available to her.”

Joe Fab, producer and director of Rehm’s documentary, became interested in end-of-life issues after his sister and both his parents died within four years. “We are just too frozen up in this country, talking about death,” he says.

The Core Conflict

Dr. Lonnie Shavelson, a former emergency room doctor who founded Bay Area End of Life Options in Calfornia, distilled the complex debate surrounding medical aid in dying, to a phrase, included in Rehm’s book: “You’ve got the ethic of autonomy against the ethic of maintaining life.”

The American Medical Association sides with maintaining life, opposing what it still calls “physician-assisted suicide” because the group says it’s “incompatible with the physician’s role as a healer.”

The question that remains unsettled in the context of the physician’s Hippocratic Oath is whether a doctor does more harm than good in writing a lethal prescription for a suffering, terminally ill patient.

The Catholic Church and other religious groups have not given their blessing to medical aid in dying. Diane Rehm is quick to say she respects all opposing views, but remains steadfast in her support for the terminally ill individual choosing when his or her life should end.

The public likely associates two people — Jack Kevorkian and Brittany Maynard — with medical aid in dying more than anyone else. Kevorkian, the controversial pathologist who assisted in the deaths of 130 terminally ill patients in the 1990s and was sent to prison, kicked off the national debate over the right to die.

But it was Maynard who put a new, young face on the right-to-die movement and perhaps did more than anyone in accelerating the growth of laws. Given six months to live with a brain tumor, Maynard moved to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s death-with-dignity law. Before she died on Nov. 1, 2014 at 29, her videos promoting medical aid in dying went viral.

Rehm’s Take on the Subject

At the conclusion of Rehm’s book and documentary, she asks her grandson, Benjamin Zide, a Dartmouth sophomore studying medical ethics, to pick up his phone and take a video of her as she described what would be for her a “good death.” Here’s what she says:

“I came across a perfect paragraph that Anne Morrow Lindbergh left behind. She wrote, ‘To my family, my physician and my hospital: If there is no reasonable expectation of my recovery from mental or physical disability, I request I be allowed to die and not be kept alive by artificial means and heroic measures. I ask that medication be mercifully administered to me for terminal suffering, even if it hastens the moment of my death. I hope that you who care for me will feel morally bound to act in accordance with this urgent request.’”

Last night, as Rehm kicked off her book tour at Washington, D.C.’s Sixth & I synagogue, she recounted her mother’s suffering before dying at age 49 and how John Rehm’s father and mother committed suicide. So, the subject of death was part of the conversation at their dinner table, even before John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

Diane Rehm says she told her husband, “When my time comes, I need some help from you. I don’t want to live to the point where I’m sick and infirm and cannot take care of myself.” And, she says, “John looked at me and said, ‘I feel the same way.’”

Complete Article HERE!