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.'”

Complete Article HERE!

I run a hospice for animals

I provide care for however long they have left, so they do not have to take their final steps alone

Old and sick animals need love and attention’: Alexis Fleming with Gimli the sheep.

By Alexis Fleming

The last day we had with Osha the bullmastiff was hard, although perfect for her. We took her for her favourite walk, gave her a meal of her favourite food (pasta) and then lay in the garden in the sun with her, feeding her fruit chews, which she loved. Then the vet came and sedated her and put her to sleep. I was so sad , but I knew it was the right time to say goodbye.

I had heard about Osha through the charity I run, Pounds For Poundies, which tries to stop abandoned dogs from being put down in pounds. When I learned Osha had been dumped in the pound with terminal cancer, I had to take her in. This was October 2015, the same time my dog Maggie died suddenly in a veterinary hospital, which left me devastated. Maggie and Osha inspired me to set up the Maggie Fleming animal hospice, offering end-of-life care for animals, in Dumfries in March 2016. At the hospice, I provide them with a home, friendship, love, comfort and tailored vet care for however long they have left, so they do not have to take their final steps alone. The hospice is funded by charitable donations and I run it with help from my partner Adam, friends, family and volunteers.

Osha’s favourite things were food and sleep, so she spent her last nine months being spoiled with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in bed. She loved to steal eggs from our rescued chickens; I would leave one on the doorstep so that when she went out for her late-night wees she would think she had found treasure.

The vet who put Osha to sleep helped me realise it was the right thing to do. She told me that she sees similar situations almost weekly, when owners are so desperate not to make that heartbreaking decision that they leave it too late and the animals die in pain. The point of the hospice is to avoid that scenario.

I look after a maximum of three animals at one time, so that I can provide the best care possible. It is very time-intensive. Some of the animals I have helped have lived all their lives in kennels, never been hugged or kissed and don’t know what to do when I cuddle them, although they are clearly desperate for affection. My day is busy in some ways – looking after the animals’ practical needs, feeding them and giving them medication or other required care – but it is peaceful in others. Old and sick animals need love and attention, so I spend a lot of time sitting with them, reading to them and cuddling them.

I also care for more than 80 animals at my sanctuary for farmed animals and rescue hens. Many have been worked to death, and they come here rather than the slaughterhouse.There is something so sad about animals that have never known life outside a pen or a cage.

We take animals from all over, but I cannot provide end-of-life care for all that need it, so I offer support to their owners instead. They can phone me 24/7 for advice. Often just talking to someone who understands their sorrow can help people through what can be one of the hardest decisions they ever have to make. Most importantly, it helps families to stay together until the end, which is the best outcome for everyone, especially the animal, which wants to be with the people it knows and loves. Knowing you have done right by your pet, giving back that love and loyalty as you see it safely to the end, is a huge responsibility and privilege.

I have just started an end-of-life care plan for Bran, another abandoned dog, as he is starting to slow down. He was abandoned on the street with a tumour on his spleen when he was about 17 years old. He was given six weeks to live when he came here; that was almost two and a half years ago. But his latest blood results show he is starting to slip into liver and kidney dysfunction. I sit with him for a couple of hours each day, washing his face with a warm cloth, which he loves, and giving him a massage to ease his muscles. I have promised him that when he tells me it is time to go I will listen. I will be there on his last day with all his favourite things and hold him as he slips away peacefully, knowing someone loved him to the last.

Complete Article HERE!

Ten Facts About Medical Aid in Dying

By David R. Grube, MD

Introduction

Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity Act (ORS 127.8 ff) was the nation’s first law authorizing mentally capable, terminally ill adults with 6 months or less to live to request a doctor’s prescription for medication they could decide to take to peacefully end their suffering if it became unbearable.

It was enacted in 1994 and taken into effect in 19971. Since then, 6 more states—Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado, and Hawaii (Hawaii’s law does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2019) and the District of Columbia (DC)—have authorized medical aid in dying. Pies and Hanson, in a recent article in MD Magazine® (July 7, 2018), presented 12 myths (sic) about this medical practice.2
 
I practiced family medicine in a small rural Oregon town from 1977 to 2012. In 1999, a patient asked me if I would honor his request for a “death with dignity.” He was a long-time patient who was dying of cancer; he had had surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, but his cancer was incurable and advanced. He was enrolled in hospice, but his symptoms became intolerable, leading to his request to me.

At that time, I had been in practice for more than 20 years. I did ultimately prescribe the aid-in-dying medication, and he died very peacefully at home with his wife and children at his bedside. They continue to thank me now, almost 20 years later.
 
Those of us who have participated in the practice of medical aid in dying have a different perspective than those who theorize about it. Pies and Hanson cite a 20-year-old article3 regarding the psychological and emotional effects upon US oncologists who participate in euthanasia and PAS. In fact, euthanasia—which unlike medical aid in dying requires someone other than the dying patient to administer the medication—is illegal in the United States. In my role as the National Medical Director for Compassion & Choices and our Doc2Doc consultation program, I speak to scores of physicians who have practiced medical aid in dying. 

All of them are sincere, all are compassionate, none of them take this action lightly, and none have reported instances of regret or depression. 
 
1) People who request medical aid in dying usually do so because they are experiencing loss of dignity, anhedonia, and inability to control the “end of their life story.”
 
Pies and Hanson are correct in reporting that pain is not usually in the top 3 reasons why individuals request medical aid in dying in both Oregon and California. Autonomy is no. 1: these individuals are suffering, dying persons who feel that they have no control over their imminent death (which their physicians confirm). They do not want to die in a hospital. They are knowledgeable of their options. They do not want to depend upon others for symptom management, and indeed, by their own report, their symptoms are unmanageable.

Pies and Hansen report that many patients who request medical aid in dying are clinically depressed, but this assertion is false. By law, they are required to be evaluated for the mental capacity to make rational decisions by their physician and a second (consulting) physician. In addition, they often are in hospice, so they also are evaluated by their hospice medical director, their hospice nurse, their chaplain, their social worker, etc. They do not have a major depressive disorder; rather, they are grieving normally. They cannot “be successfully treated, once properly diagnosed.”1 They are terminal.
 
2) In Oregon, 6 other states, and D.C. with similar laws, there are adequate safeguards to ensure proper application of medical aid in dying. 
 
Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, now in effect for 2 decades, is analyzed annually by the Oregon Health Authority1 and it has never needed to be changed. It adequately protects individuals from coercion, abuse, or inappropriate use.  Why is this statement true? There are core safeguards in place to protect vulnerable populations, so many in fact that they are also recognized as significant barriers for dying people to access the law. Many dying patients in Oregon are unable to utilize the Death with Dignity Act because they die before the entire process can be completed and doctors can be reluctant to practice because of the paperwork.  
 
3) The conversation about the option of medical aid in dying is palliative in and of itself
 
A healthy doctor-patient relationship is founded upon open communication and trust. In end-of-life care, the ability to discuss all options allows for exploration, and hopefully, fulfillment of the patient’s wishes and values. Many patients and doctors discuss medical aid in dying, even if the patient ultimately does not make a request for a prescription. Physicians who are willing to openly explore a patient’s requests can learn much that can help her or him to provide quality care at the end of life.

In all jurisdictions where this palliative, end-of-life care option is authorized, approximately two-thirds of patients who go through the process required by the Oregon Death with Dignity Act ultimately take aid-in-dying medication; one-third do not take the medication,1 but they want to know that they have the option to use the medication if needed, hence, they are palliated.
 
4) Not all suffering can be satisfactorily treated with palliative medicine or hospice care
 
Quality hospice care and palliative care have improved the end-of-life experience of thousands of patients, and advances in end-of-life care continue. More improvement and resources should be dedicated to this cause. But not all suffering can be assuaged. Suffering is defined by the patient, not the doctor.
 
5) Doctors who conscientiously oppose medical aid in dying are free not to practice it.
 
Pies and Hanson discuss conscientious objection to medical aid in dying “in theory” based upon “guidelines.” Physicians who are not willing to participate in end-of-life care option are free not to practice it if it conflicts with their conscience; there is no law that requires otherwise. However, a licensed physician is bound to practice professionally and under the standards of care in their location. A professional “puts the patient first.

If a licensed physician (who does not support a patient’s option to decide to use medical aid in dying) has a request by a patient for this end-of-life care option, her or his obligation is to refer the patient to another physician for evaluation of the request. Ironically, many physicians in Oregon who do support this option for their dying patients, are unable to provide it because they are employed by healthcare systems that prohibit their doctors from practicing it. Thus, rather than physicians being coerced to practice medical aid in dying, they are prevented from honoring their dying patient’s request for it.
 
6) Language matters: medical aid in dying should not be called “suicide,” or “assisted suicide”
 
Legally, in all jurisdictions where medical aid in dying is authorized, “it is not suicide, homicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing.”1  

David Pollack MD, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland, OR, stated that a “growing body of evidence clearly distinguishes the characteristics of persons who commit suicide resulting from mental illness from those of terminally ill persons who request medical aid in dying.

“These differences include the type and severity of psychological symptoms, degree of despair, reasons for wishing to end one’s life, communicativeness regarding their wishes and fears, degree of personal isolation, openness about the wish and intended method to end one’s life, and the impact on the person’s family or support system following the person’s death.”4  

Furthermore, there is no place in end-of-life care for language that is hurtful, angry, shaming, or that causes guilt. Language matters.

7) People requesting medical aid in dying are carefully screened to rule out depression that impairs judgment
 
Pies and Hanson are correct in reporting that most medical aid-in-dying statutes do not require a professional mental health examination, “except when the participating physician is concerned and decides to do so.” Such a requirement is unnecessary because doctors are experts in evaluating the mental capacity of their patients to make informed healthcare decisions.

Doctors make these assessments every day in routine matters and matters of life and death. And if 1 of the 2 doctors evaluating the mental capacity of a patient requesting medical aid in dying wants a third mental capacity evaluation by a mental health professional, they can easily request it. It’s important to note that all of these terminally ill patients and their families are sad, and normally grieving. But most patients do not have mental illness or a major depressive disorder. By virtue of their State Medical License, physicians who are involved in primary care are competent to diagnose mental illness, including depression that causes impaired decision-making.
 
8) In the United States, only people with terminal illness are eligible for medical aid in dying
 
In Oregon and in all jurisdictions where medical aid in dying is authorized, individuals who receive an aid-in-dying prescription must meet the eligibility criteria, including having a terminal illness. This diagnosis is determined by the attending physician and the consulting physician. In each case, these licensed doctors consider the individual situation.

A diabetic who does not want to take insulin is not a candidate; someone with anorexia nervosa, by definition, has a mental illness. Advanced dementia precludes participation because the patient is not mentally capable of making their own healthcare decisions. When a patient requests medical aid in dying, the physician investigates all of the intricacies of the request. If the patient has a disease that can be reasonably treated (diabetes, early cancer, etc.), this end-of-life care option is not appropriate.

Hence, the value of 2 physicians working in concert is not only the case, but also the law, in Oregon.

9) The basic requirements for medical aid in dying have not changed in more than 20 years

After more than 20 years of medical aid-in-dying experience in Oregon, there now is ample accumulated experience to show that the law has been safely and successfully implemented.5 In fact, ORS 127.8, the Death with Dignity Act, has not been changed, amended, or altered. Those who theorize that abuses are possible seem more concerned with “what if” than with “what is.” Experience and evidence outweighs speculation.

In point of fact, the practice of medical aid in dying in Oregon (and in others states with similar laws in effect) has catalyzed improvement in end-of-life care, a much broader discussion of end-of-life care issues, more frequent conversations between physicians and patients about their end-of-life care wishes and goals, doctor-patient relationships, and the awareness of and participation in hospice and palliative care services.

10) Since Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act took effect in 1997, more people have not died, but fewer have suffered

Since the Oregon Death with Dignity Act took effect in 1997, a total of 1967 Oregonians have had prescriptions written under the law, and 1275 patients have died from ingesting the medications.

During 2017, 143 patients used medical aid in dying, and the estimated rate of Death with Dignity Act deaths was 39.9 per 10,000 total deaths,1 which is a similar percentage to previous years.  All of these patients were about to die (had a prognosis of 6 months or less to live) and had the comfort of knowing that they could determine the final chapter of their life if their suffering became unbearable.  

Pies and Hanson concluded that “it is critical that physicians inform themselves as regards the actual nature and function … of medical aid-in-dying legislation.” I heartily agree. However, their “first step” is to “recognize and challenge the many myths that surround these…laws.”

I believe that a better first step is to learn the facts about medical aid in dying, not theoretic myths. Louis Pasteur, MD, wrote, “One does not ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says: You suffer, that is enough for me.” A dying patient needs respect, and our comfort. We may have thought that we were trained as “healers,” but when a cure is no longer possible, care and comfort are paramount.

Complete Article HERE!

‘No one is ever really ready’

Seattle aid-in-dying patient chooses his last day

Aaron McQ, 50, sits in his Seattle apartment on Jan. 31. The interior and urban designer had been battling leukemia and a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, for five years.

A former world traveler, triathlete and cyclist McQ had been in pain and physical decline for years. Last fall, he decided to use Washington state’s 2009 Death With Dignity law to end his suffering.

By

In the end, it wasn’t easy for Aaron McQ to decide when to die.

The 50-year-old Seattle man — a former world traveler, triathlete and cyclist — learned he had leukemia five years ago, followed by an even grimmer diagnosis in 2016: a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

An interior and urban designer who legally changed his given name, McQ had been in pain and physical decline for years. Then the disease threatened to shut down his ability to swallow and breathe.

“It’s like waking up every morning in quicksand,” McQ said. “It’s terrifying.”

Last fall, McQ decided to use Washington state’s 2009 Death With Dignity law to end his suffering. The practice, approved in seven states and the District of Columbia, allows people with a projected six months or less to live to obtain lethal drugs to end their lives.

Although the option was legal, actually carrying it out was difficult for McQ, who agreed to discuss his deliberations with Kaiser Health News. He said he hoped to shed light on an often secretive and misunderstood practice.

“How does anyone get their head around dying?” he said, sitting in a wheelchair in his apartment in late January.

More than 3,000 people in the U.S. have chosen such deaths since Oregon’s law was enacted in 1997, according to state reports. Even as similar statutes have expanded to more venues — including, this year, Hawaii — it has remained controversial.

California’s End of Life Option Act, which took effect in 2016, was suspended for three weeks this spring after a court challenge, leaving hundreds of dying patients briefly in limbo.

Supporters say the practice gives patients control over their own fate in the face of a terminal illness. Detractors — including religious groups, disability-rights advocates and some doctors — argue such laws could put pressure on vulnerable people and that proper palliative care can ease end-of-life suffering.

Thin and wan, with silver hair and piercing blue eyes, McQ still could have passed for the model he once was. But his legs shook involuntarily beneath his dark jeans and his voice was hoarse with pain during a three-hour effort to tell his story.

“How do you decide?”

Last November, doctors told McQ he had six months or less to live. The choice, he said, became not death over a healthy life, but a “certain outcome” now over a prolonged, painful — and “unknowable” — end.

“I’m not wanting to die,” he said. “I’m very much alive, yet I’m suffering. And I would rather have it not be a surprise.”

In late December, a friend picked up a prescription for 100 tablets of the powerful sedative secobarbital. For weeks, the bottle holding the lethal dose sat on a shelf in his kitchen.

“I was not relaxed or confident until I had it in my cupboard,” McQ said.

Aaron McQ stored his aid-in-dying prescription in a brown paper bag in the cabinet above the refrigerator. He filled the prescription in late December, planning to use them within weeks. The hard part was deciding exactly when to die.

At the time, he intended to take the drug in late February. Or maybe mid-March. He had wanted to get past Christmas, so he didn’t ruin anyone’s holiday. Then his sister and her family came for a visit. Then there was a friend’s birthday and another friend’s wedding.

“No one is ever really ready to die,” McQ said. “There will always be a reason not to.”

Many people who opt for medical aid-in-dying are so sick that they take the drugs as soon as they can, impatiently enduring state-mandated waiting periods to obtain the prescriptions.

Data from Oregon show that the median time from first request to death is 48 days, or about seven weeks. But it has ranged from two weeks to more than 2.7 years, records show.

Neurodegenerative diseases like ALS are particularly difficult, said Dr. Lonny Shavelson, a Berkeley, Calif., physician who has supervised nearly 90 aid-in-dying deaths in that state and advised more than 600 patients since 2016.

“It’s a very complicated decision week to week,” he said. “How do you decide? When do you decide? We don’t let them make that decision alone.”

Philosophically, McQ had been a supporter of aid-in-dying for years. He was the final caregiver for his grandmother, Milly, who he said begged for death to end pain at the end of her life.

By late spring, McQ’s own struggle was worse, said Karen Robinson, McQ’s health- care proxy and friend of two decades. He was admitted to home hospice care, but continued to decline. When a nurse recommended that McQ transfer to a hospice facility to control his growing pain, he decided he’d rather die at home.

“There was part of him that was hoping there were some other alternative,” Robinson said.

McQ considered several dates — and then changed his mind, partly because of the pressure that such a choice imposed.

“I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to feel like, now you gotta,” he said.

Coconut water, vodka, friends

Along with the pain, the risk of losing the physical ability to administer the medication himself, a legal requirement, was growing.

“I talked with him about losing his window of opportunity,” said Gretchen DeRoche, a volunteer with the group End of Life Washington, who said she has supervised hundreds of aid-in-dying deaths.

Finally, McQ chose the day: April 10. Robinson came over early in the afternoon, as she had often done, to drink coffee and talk — but not about his impending death.

“There was a part of him that didn’t want it to be like this is the day,” she said.

Aaron McQ and his friend Karen Robinson go boating on Seattle’s Portage Bay in 2013, before he fell ill with leukemia and a rare form of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

DeRoche arrived exactly at 5:30 p.m., per McQ’s instructions. At 6 p.m., McQ took anti-nausea medication. Because the lethal drugs are so bitter, there is some chance patients won’t keep them down.

Four close friends gathered, along with Robinson. They sorted through McQ’s CDs, trying to find appropriate music.

“He put on Marianne Faithfull. She’s amazing, but, it was too much,” Robinson said. “Then he put on James Taylor for, like, 15 seconds. It was ‘You’ve Got a Friend.’ I vetoed that. I said, ‘Aaron, you cannot do that if you want us to hold it together.’”

DeRoche went into a bedroom to open the 100 capsules of 100-milligram secobarbital, one at a time, a tedious process. Then she mixed the drug with coconut water and some vodka.

Just then, McQ started to cry, DeRoche said. “I think he was just kind of mourning the loss of the life he had expected to live.”

After that, he said he was ready. McQ asked everyone but DeRoche to leave the room. She told him he could still change his mind.

“I said, as I do to everyone: ‘If you take this medication, you’re going to go to sleep and you are not going to wake up,’” she recalled.
McQ drank half the drug mixture, paused and drank water. Then he swallowed the rest.

His friends returned, but remained silent.

“They just all gathered around him, each one touching him,” DeRoche said.

Very quickly, just before 7:30 p.m., it was over.

“It was just like one fluid motion,” DeRoche said. “He drank the medication, he went to sleep and he died in six minutes. I think we were all a little surprised he was gone that fast.”

The friends stayed until a funeral-home worker arrived.

“Once we got him into the vehicle, she asked, ‘What kind of music does he like?’” Robinson recalled. “It was just such a sweet, human thing for her to say. He was driving away, listening to jazz.”

McQ’s friends gathered June 30 in Seattle for a “happy memories celebration” of his life, Robinson said. She and a few others kayaked out into Lake Washington and left McQ’s ashes in the water, along with rose petals.

In the months since her friend’s death, Robinson has reflected on McQ’s decision to die. It was probably what he expected, she said, but not anything that he desired.

“It’s really tough to be alive and then not be alive because of your choice,” she said.

“If he had his wish, he would have died in his sleep.”

Complete Article HERE!

Why Do We Give Our Pets Death With Dignity but Not Ourselves?

My years as an emergency veterinarian have shown me the relief that assisted death can bring. Why are our pets the main recipients?

By Catherine Ashe

The room is dim and hushed. On the floor before me lies a shaggy bear of a dog. His name is Shep, and he’s some combination of Great Pyrenees and probably German shepherd. His owners, Anne and Rich, adopted him to guard their dairy goats from coyotes, but Shep wasn’t very good at his job and instead became a much loved house dog. I know this because I’ve been taking care of him, as his veterinarian, for his entire life. Now, as he is stretched out before me on the floor, I can see the effects of the cancer that is slowly ending his life.

Shep has osteosarcoma, an aggressive and destructive bone cancer. It starts somewhere in a long bone of the body, silently eating away at the leg until there is nothing left. The leg gives out in a painful and sudden fracture. The cancer then progresses slowly, eventually invading the lungs. Once the cancer is in the lungs, there is nothing left to be done. It is only a matter of days to weeks.

We discovered the cancer when Shep broke his leg. I had a long heart-to-heart with Anne and Rich. The typical treatment is amputation followed by chemotherapy. With that treatment, a good quality of life can be obtained for up to a year or more. There are no guarantees, of course—cancer will do what it wants. Anne and Rich spent two days deliberating the pros and cons, but since Shep was otherwise happy and healthy, they decided to amputate and pursue chemotherapy. He did great as a tripod. Often you had to look twice to notice that he was missing a leg.

That was nine months ago. Now, the chemo has stopped working, and Shep’s lungs are filled with cancer. As he lays on the floor before me, his breathing is labored. Thin, watery blood leaks from his nostrils, and he coughs occasionally. His eyes are dull, no longer the bright, shiny brown that I remember. He doesn’t enthusiastically investigate my hand for treats. His tail doesn’t thump when I softly murmur, “Shep’s a good boy.” The dog I knew isn’t here any longer. His body is a shell.

Anne and Rich are huddled on either side of him, weeping quietly. Anne runs his shaggy fur through her fingers over and over.

“It won’t hurt, right, Dr. Ashe?” she asks me again.

I shake my head gently. “No. I’m going to give him propofol to make him very sleepy, and then I am going to give him the blue injection. It will slowly stop his heart and breathing. He will drift off to sleep and then he will die. He will not feel anything,” I say. I show her the syringes again, even though we’ve already been over this. I use the word die because ambiguity is never good in these situations.

Anne takes a deep breath, looks at Rich, and then nods. It is time.

I place the Shep’s great paw in my lap, check the catheter, and slowly inject propofol. Shep’s breathing deepens, his eyes grow glassy, and his head falls to one side. I give the second injection. His breathing slows. Slows. Slows. And then it stops. Anne gives a strangled cry and lays across his still form. Rich is stoic but tears track slowly down his face. Both are focused on Shep’s body, so they miss what I see—the final gift my patients often give me. As the drugs take hold, I swear I glimpse relief in his brown eyes.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing my parents having whispered conversations about what I interpreted as “youth in Asia.” I’d be half dozing in the backseat of our car, driving through the night, the radio playing, and I would hear their low voices, the urgency with which they discussed it. At the time, I was uncertain why they were so concerned about the teen population of Japan. What did that have to do with death squads and socialized medicine? It wasn’t until years later that I realized what they were actually discussing—not “youth in Asia” but euthanasia. And it wasn’t until I became a veterinarian that I intimately understood euthanasia, the easy death.

Euthanasia was a hotly debated topic for those of us who grew up in the era of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. When I was 19, Kevorkian was convicted on charges of second-degree murder for assisting in the euthanasia of Thomas Youk. Youk was in the end stages of ALS, a disease that ravages the body but leaves the mind intact.

I paid little attention to these debates back then. I was bound for college, with the world unfurling before me. But these questions came back to haunt me almost 10 years later when I started my career as an emergency veterinarian. For what do veterinarians do besides vaccinate pets and treat diseases? We ease suffering. We help our animal companions to the threshold of death, and then we help them through that final, mysterious door. We euthanize sometimes on a daily basis. We do it for reasons of behavior, illness, injury.

And as we do it, we hold the hands of distraught owners and help them make that last painful decision. We offer words of comfort and listen to sacred stories. And we meet each pet’s eyes in those last moments, and what we see again and again is not fear but relief. Relaxation. The end of suffering has come at last. I have seen it firsthand, time and time again. The wordless thank you, as a beloved pet slips into whatever awaits us in the next life. The light dims and then is extinguished. As animal physicians, we are not afraid to acknowledge that death comes for us all and that we possess the ability to ease its final agonies.

Complete Article HERE!

Does palliative sedation ease suffering during end-of-life care?

By

oward the end, the pain had practically driven Elizabeth Martin mad.

By then, the cancer had spread everywhere, from her colon to her spine, her liver, her adrenal glands and one of her lungs. Eventually, it penetrated her brain. No medication made the pain bearable. A woman who had been generous and good-humored turned into someone hardly recognizable to her loving family: paranoid, snarling, violent.

Sometimes, she would flee into the California night in her bedclothes, “as if she were trying to outrun the pain,” her older sister Anita Freeman recalled.

Martin fantasized about having her sister drive her into the mountains and leave her with the liquid morphine drops she had surreptitiously collected over three months — medicine that didn’t relieve her pain but might be enough to kill her if she took it all at once. Freeman couldn’t bring herself to do it, fearing the legal consequences and the possibility that her sister would survive and end up in even worse shape.

California’s aid-in-dying law, authorizing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to certain terminally ill patients, was still two years from going into effect in 2016. But Martin did have one alternative to the agonizing death she feared: palliative sedation.

Under palliative sedation, a doctor gives a terminally ill patient enough sedatives to induce unconsciousness. The goal is to reduce or eliminate suffering, but in many cases the patient dies without regaining consciousness.

The medical staff at the Long Beach acute care center where Martin was a patient gave her phenobarbital. Once they calibrated the dosage properly, she never woke up again. She died within a week, not the one or two months her doctors had predicted before the sedation. She was 66.

“At least she got into that coma state versus four to eight weeks of torture,” Freeman said.

While aid-in-dying, or “death with dignity,” is now legal in seven states and Washington, D.C., medically assisted suicide retains tough opposition. Palliative sedation, though, has been administered since the hospice care movement began in the 1960s and is legal everywhere.

Doctors in Catholic hospitals practice palliative sedation even though the Catholic Church opposes aid-in-dying. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church believes that “patients should be kept as free of pain as possible so that they may die comfortably and with dignity.”

Since there are no laws barring palliative sedation, the dilemma facing doctors who use it is moral rather than legal, said Timothy Quill, who teaches psychiatry, bioethics and palliative care medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

Some doctors are hesitant about using it “because it brings them right up to the edge of euthanasia,” Quill said.

But Quill believes that any doctor who treats terminally ill patients has an obligation to consider palliative sedation. “If you are going to practice palliative care, you have to practice some sedation because of the overwhelming physical suffering of some patients under your charge.”

Doctors wrestle with what constitutes unbearable suffering, and at what point palliative sedation is appropriate — if ever. Policies vary from one hospital to another, one hospice to another, and one palliative care practice to another.

Not Euthanasia

The boundary between aid-in-dying and palliative sedation “is fuzzy, gray and conflated,” said David Grube, a national medical director at the advocacy group Compassion and Choices. In both cases, the goal is to relieve suffering.

But many doctors who use palliative sedation say the bright line that distinguishes palliative sedation from euthanasia, including aid-in-dying, is intent.

“There are people who believe they are the same. I am not one of them,” said Thomas Strouse, a psychiatrist and specialist in palliative care medicine at the UCLA Medical Center. “The goal of aid-in-dying is to be dead; that is the patient’s goal. The goal in palliative sedation is to manage intractable symptoms, maybe through reduction of consciousness or complete unconsciousness.”

Other groups such as the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which advocates for quality end-of-life care, recommend that providers use as little medication as needed to achieve “the minimum level of consciousness reduction necessary” to make symptoms tolerable.

Sometimes that means a light unconsciousness, in which the patient may still be somewhat aware of the presence of others. On other occasions it might mean a deep unconsciousness, not unlike a coma. In some cases, the palliative sedation is limited; in others it continues until death.

Whether palliative sedation hastens death remains an open question. Pain-management doctors say sedation slows breathing and lowers blood pressure and heart rates to potentially dangerous levels.

In the vast majority of cases, it is accompanied by the cessation of food, drink and antibiotics, which can precipitate death. But palliative sedation is also administered when the underlying disease has made death imminent.

“Some patients are super sick,” Quill said. “The wheels are coming off, they’re delirious, out of their minds.”

In that circumstance, palliative sedation doesn’t accelerate death, he said. “For other patients who are not actively dying, it might hasten death to some extent, bringing it on in hours rather than days.” He emphasized, however, that in all cases the goal isn’t death but relief from suffering.

One review of studies on palliative sedation concluded that it “does not seem to have any detrimental effect on survival of patients with terminal cancer.” But even that 30-year survey acknowledged that, without randomized control trials, it’s impossible to be definitive.

‘Existential Suffering’

There is widespread agreement that palliative sedation is appropriate for intractable physical pain, extreme nausea and vomiting when other treatments have failed.

Doctors are divided about whether palliative sedation is appropriate for alleviating suffering that is not physiological, what medical journals refer to as “existential suffering.” The hospice and palliative care group defines it as “suffering that arises from a loss or interruption of meaning, purpose, or hope in life.”

Some argue that such suffering is every bit as agonizing as physical suffering. Existential suffering is the motivation that prompts many to seek aid-in-dying.

Terminally ill patients who took their own lives under Oregon’s aid-in-dying law were far less likely to cite physical pain than psychosocial reasons such as loss of autonomy, loss of dignity or being a burden on loved ones.

Using palliative sedation to relieve existential suffering is less common in the United States than it is in other Western countries, according to UCLA’s Strouse and other American practitioners. “I am not comfortable with supplying palliative sedation for existential suffering,” Strouse said. “I’ve never done that and probably wouldn’t.”

In states where aid-in-dying is legal, terminally ill patients rarely choose between aid-in-dying and palliative sedation, said Anthony Back, co-director of the University of Washington’s Cambia Palliative Care Center of Excellence. In Washington, patients with a prognosis of six months to live or less must make two verbal requests to their doctor at least 15 days apart and sign a written form. They also must be healthy enough to take the legal drugs themselves.

“If you are starting the death-with-dignity process, you’re not at a point where a doctor would recommend palliative sedation,” Back said. “And with terminal sedation, the patient doesn’t have that kind of time and is too sick to take all those meds orally,” he said of the aid-in-dying drugs.

But Back does tell terminally ill patients who don’t want or don’t qualify for aid-in-dying that, when the time is right and no other treatments alleviate their symptoms, “I would be willing to make sure that you get enough sedation so you won’t be awake and miserable.”

Whether palliative sedation truly ends suffering is not knowable, although doctors perceive indications that it does.

“You might be able to tell if their blood pressure goes up. Same with their pulse,” said Nancy Crumpacker, a retired oncologist in Oregon. “And you read their faces. If they are still bothered somehow, it will show in their facial expression.”

Harlan Seymour didn’t need to rely on those signs after his wife, Jennifer Glass, a well-known San Francisco public relations executive, received palliative sedation in 2015. A nonsmoker, she had metastatic lung cancer and faced a miserable death from suffocation brought on by fluids filling her lungs, her husband said.

She desperately wanted to die, he said, but aid-in-dying, which she advocated for, wasn’t yet legal. Instead, she received palliative sedation.

“The expectation was this cocktail would put her into a peaceful sleep and she would pass away” within a day or two, Seymour said. “Instead, she woke up the third night in a panic.”

Doctors upped her dosage, putting her into a deep unconsciousness. Still, she didn’t die until the seventh day. She was 52. Seymour wishes aid-in-dying had been available for his wife, but he did regard palliative sedation as a mercy for her.

“Palliative sedation is slow-motion aid-in-dying,” he said. “It was better than being awake and suffocating, but it wasn’t a good alternative.”

Complete Article HERE!