Choosing a better death

Could dying be better?

By now most people acknowledge that there are “good” deaths: peaceful, with minimal pain, at home surrounded by loved ones – and “bad”: pain-filled and prolonged, often for months or years and more often than not in a hospital or other institutional setting. The movement toward “good” death – legalized medical aid in dying – has been growing for decades in the U.S., but has been gaining momentum and attention in recent months.

Liner.2Robert Liner MD, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist, gave an informative update on the movement at a recent University of California San Francisco grand rounds. Liner is one of four patient plaintiffs in a California lawsuit which would make that state the sixth to legalize physician aid in dying, and a longtime supporter of leading end-of-life organization Compassion & Choices. The suit is also joined by three physician plaintiffs.

Liner, whose cancer is in remission, said he would personally prefer to avoid death altogether. “But along with birth, dying is a universal experience. It’s what we all do.” And equally universal, he noted, is the wish to make that experience a little more compassionate, a little closer to what most of us would choose.

Liner outlined the current status of California SB-128, the End of Life Options Act, now working its way through the senate. While granting terminally ill, mentally competent adults the right to ask their physicians for life-ending medication, the bill would also establish safeguards such as requiring assessments by multiple physicians and repeat requests for the medication made at least 15 days apart. A similar law in Oregon has proven valuable in many aspects over the 18 years in which it has now been in place, Liner said. Death W Dignity newspaper

He cited a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of the Oregon law’s first decade which found that since passage of the law Oregon has seen improved training for physicians in end-of-life care, an increase in individuals’ completing advance directives, improved pain management and rates of referral to hospice and an increase in number of people dying at home.

Putting the better-death movement in historical context, Liner referenced a significant case several decades ago that sometimes goes unnoticed. In 1991, he explained, New York physician Timothy Quill published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine describing how he had prescribed barbiturates to a dying patient when her leukemia reached a point at which she no longer wanted to live. A grand jury subsequently declined to prosecute. Quill later became one of the plaintiffs in a case that wound up reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. And in 1997 the Court let stand a New York law prohibiting what was then called physician-assisted suicide, ruling that there is no federal constitutional right to die – effectively turning the issue back to the states.

Five states – Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico now allow physician aid in dying, Liner explained. California’s efforts to become the sixth include a campaign launched last year by Compassion & Choices and the lawsuit filed early this year.

Scales of justiceLiner distributed copies of the April edition of San Francisco Medicine, the journal of the San Francisco Medical Society, in which he and two of the other physicians involved in the lawsuit explain their support for legalized aid in dying. “Collectively, we represent almost a century of medical practice, teaching and research…(and) probably most relevant is our extensive experience caring for dying patients,” write lawsuit plaintiffs Liner, Donald Abrams, MD and Marcus Conant, MD in San Francisco Medicine.

The lawsuit is backed by national disability rights advocacy group Disability Rights Legal Center, Liner explained, and cites a number of reasons why aid in dying should now be legalized. While some arguments – such as privacy and liberty interests – are complex, one seems fairly straightforward: California penal code section #401, which makes it a crime to aid or encourage someone to commit suicide (a very different situation from a dying person’s wish to shorten his suffering), was written more than a century ago. Before dying shifted from being commonly a home event overseen by the familiar family physician to hospitals or other institutions where the large majority of Americans now spend their final days and weeks. Before medical technology made it possible to prolong life, often far past any “life” many would choose.

Liner, and millions of other Americans, believe choice in dying should rest with those who are dying themselves.

 

 

Saying Goodbye, and Hello to 2015

sunrise

My friend M has died, just shy of the old year’s end and significantly decreasing the joy of the new. But her dying was full of life lessons about saying goodbye, being grateful and trying to ring in a better planet for the days ahead. And thus she leaves a gracious greeting for 2015.

M was a believer in good causes, and she put her substantial time and energies to work for them all. We became friends over our mutual love of writing but we bonded over our mutual commitment to end-of-life choice. Once you concede that you won’t live forever, a reality most prefer to ignore, it is possible to live both gently and joyfully even in tough times. Both of us spent long years encouraging anyone who would listen to confront mortality, make choices, and make personal decisions known to all. It’s called living fully, even into dying.

So M, after conceding her own days on the planet were dwindling, sat down over a cup of soup I’d brought her not long ago and we went about the business of saying goodbye. I told her why I thought she was such a wonder, and she told me all the things I’d be happy to have said for my own eulogy. OK, we had an extravagant mutual admiration society. But the life lesson is that telling others about their own gifts and good qualities (however hard it might occasionally be to uncover them) is something anyone can do, any time; the planet would be immeasurably better if more of us did it more often.

M was supportive of my activism for reproductive justice, having done more than a little of that herself in years past, but once she expressed reservations about how much time I was investing in that cause. “It’s time for young people, young women, to take that on,” she said. Well, yes. Another 2015 greeting for that demographic: reproductive rights are disappearing at an alarming rate. Unless more of us of whatever gender or age pitch in, women – particularly women without money or power – will soon be back in the pre-Roe dark ages, with no control over their own bodies. Which could make for a very unhappy new year for uncounted thousands of women.

The daughter of a rabbi, M was aggressively non-religious. We didn’t waste a lot of time on the subject, though she applauded the idea of my Presbyterian church working to break cycles of poverty. But once, after some sort of “What Would Jesus Do?”-type remark I made she said, “Oh, you and Anne Lamott.” I am personally fine with being lumped in with my funny, gifted friend Lamott, but this was not meant as a compliment. It did lead to a brief, lively discussion about faith and practice. And wouldn’t 2015 be a happy new year if fewer wars were fought in the name of Allah (or Whomever) and more focus were put on the peace, justice and love for fellow creatures that is the basic message of every religion around.

Rest in peace Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, James Brady, Pete Seeger – and all those other good souls we lost in 2014. Most especially, M.

And Happy New Year to us all.

Danger Zone in End-of-Life Talk

carved ice dove

A suicide pill for everyone over 85? Not the wisest plan to suggest right now. But it is, in fact, a possibility put forth by Joyce Appleby, Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In a letter published in the New York Times on November 13, Appleby notes a recent anti-longevity article by Ezekiel Emmanuel and a new book on end-of-life care by Atul Gawande (both physicians,) and says,

“Perhaps the moment is right for broaching the idea of what we might call prophylactic suicide: the decision of an elderly person to pre-empt the grim reaper and avoid the disabilities of extended life.”

Appleby goes on to note that organizations such as Compassion & Choices, with which this writer has worked closely for well over a decade, “are campaigning for dignified terminations of life for those with incurable diseases” but writes, “What I propose goes a step further, extending the right to people before they face terminal or debilitating illnesses.”

Not surprisingly, Appleby’s letter – one of The Times’ regular “Invitations to Dialog” – drew more than 300 responses. Nine were selected to appear either in print or online; this writer’s is among those online and is as follows:

“I strongly support the right of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to choose aid-in-dying, now legal in five states, but Ms. Appleby does a disservice to the cause by suggesting “a step further” — prophylactic suicide. The latter bears no relation to the former.

“We would be far better served to fight unwanted medical treatment, so often futile and excruciatingly painful at the end of life, and to enforce individual advance directives. My own directives (I’m 81) stipulate that no medication other than pain relief be given should I become unable to speak for myself, and stress that I do not wish to be fed if unable to feed myself. More important, all of my children and close friends understand these wishes because we’ve had the conversation.

“Let’s work toward those sane measures, and leave “suicide” out of it.”

Because the Death With Dignity movement is so important, and informed dialog about it so critical, it is both tragic and dangerous to have misinformation and misperception spread. There’s been enough of both over the decade+ in which the movement has slowly gained strength. To set the record straight:

Death With Dignity – the right of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to ask a physician for aid in dying – is now legal in five states (Appleby left out New Mexico) and the movement is fast gaining ground in half a dozen others. This is partly because people increasingly understand that Death With Dignity is not suicide – and is certainly no kin to “euthanasia,” as Emmanuel would have us believe. Under Death With Dignity laws, death comes because of a disease. Every death certificate for those who have considered or used DWD laws lists the cause of death as the disease; it is not caused by suicide. Euthanasia would never be allowed under DWD laws.

But the movement is also gaining strength because it has been carefully thought out and tested. Because it is rational and safe. DWD laws are designed to promote individual autonomy, and incorporate safeguards against abuse.

Much of the opposition (as evidenced in several of the letters in The Times) comes from misunderstandings which are advanced by Emmanuel’s and others’ misuse of the word “suicide” and by fears that the elderly will be encouraged to get out of the way as Appleby’s notion suggests. Both writers muddy the waters and undermine an important cause.

Death With Dignity is a safety zone. Irresponsible words throw it into a danger zone.

 

Thanks, Brittany

clouds

Brittany Maynard, 1984-2014

No one was surprised by the news of Brittany Maynard’s death on November 1, as she had planned. The news arrived in my Inbox late Sunday night, November 2, in an email from Compassion & Choices, an organization I have supported — as a volunteer, Northern California board chair and in all other ways — for well over 15 years,

What Brittany did for Compassion & Choices, and for you and me, though, far exceeds what any one person might ordinarily have done. Hers was an extraordinary demonstration of how to live, and die.

More of how she lived will continue to be in the news. But it’s how she died, with generosity and grace, that is worth noticing right now. Just to touch on a few things:

Brittany, in making her own choice, showed us how to make our own choices. Demand the right to control your destiny, she was saying. Fight for legalized aid in dying. Complete your own advance directives and make sure EVERYONE in your family and circle of friends knows what your own wishes are. Death with dignity was Brittany’s choice, and she wanted it to be yours — if you choose.

“The freedom is in the choice,” Brittany said.  “If the option of Death With Dignity is unappealing to anyone for any reason, they can simply choose not to avail themselves of it.”

Brittany was irate over insinuations that she had been “manipulated” by anyone. She was a strong, educated, independent, intelligent woman who led a joy-filled life and confronted its abbreviated end with remarkable courage. The reality was simply that she took control of her own final months, weeks, days, by moving to Oregon where aid in dying is legal. The reality is that she wanted her life — and death — to have meaning for all of us. She hoped that by sharing her story all of us might benefit.

It’s about freedom. Brittany, thankfully, is now free of the terrible pain her illness was bringing, a pain that was certain only to increase. Her family will mourn for a long time, but they are free of the pain and anguish that comes from watching someone you love suffer.

You and I are free to choose. We can continue to let those who hold differing views deprive us of our right to control our final weeks and days. Or we can fight to legalize our right to choose a compassionate death. Eventually, that right will prevail.

Thanks, Brittany.

Peaceful dying vs Doctor Knows Best

credit acpinternist.org

Barbara Coombs Lee, the sharp and articulate president of Compassion & Choices, spoke to the issue of death with dignity on PBS NewsHour tonight, with opposing views presented by Ira Byock, noted physician, author and advocate for palliative care. Neither really won; the time was too short and the issue is too complex. The Death With Dignity movement though, is not going away, and we the people will only win when the movement wins.

Lee spent 25 years as a nurse and physician’s assistant before becoming an attorney and devoting her life to personal choice and autonomy at life’s end. She believes a terminally ill, mentally competent adult should have the right to end his or her life when and how he or she chooses. Byock, chief medical officer of the Providence Institute for Human Caring, believes that if doctors were properly trained in pain management and end-of-life care – which he readily admits is far from the case – no one would ever want, or choose, to hasten one’s end. Lee appreciates the grace with which Brittany Maynard is facing her own very premature death; Byock says the active, well-educated 29-year-old is “being exploited” by Compassion and Choices.

A few caveats:

Barbara Coombs Lee is a good friend whom I admire and respect. I have worked with Compassion & Choices for well over a decade as a volunteer, Northern CA member and board chair, and now member of the Leadership Council. I strongly support physician aid-in-dying and individual autonomy.

“Hospice and palliative care,” Lee said on the NewsHour segment, “are the gold standard” for end-of-life care. But no amount of hospice care, or palliative care, can alter “the relentless, dehumanizing, unending” progression of a disease such as Maynard has and many of us will also face. For many of us, as for Maynard, there will be loss of every bodily function, one by one, quite likely accompanied by excruciating pain and possibly things like the seizures Maynard would like to minimize for her own sake as well as the sake of her loved ones who would be forced to watch.Stethoscope

Perhaps doctors will eventually all be adequately trained in pain management and palliative care. But even then – and “then” is a very long way off – must the doctor always know best? Why can’t I, the patient, the person facing my own dying, be the one in control?

Byock is dismissive of the pain involved with watching a loved one suffer agonies of prolonged dying. Maynard’s inevitably increasing seizures, for example, would be helped by palliative care, he suggested, so she wouldn’t suffer terribly. If I chose – as Maynard is choosing – to have my loved ones remember me as a woman at peace while holding their hands rather than a disintegrating person gripped with terrible spasms – why is that not an honorable choice?

Byock – who in this NewsHour fan’s humble opinion got the better time and treatment – slipped in words like “suicide” and “slippery slope” and “euthanasia,” and phrases like “euthanized in the Netherlands” too far along in the program for Lee to answer in the brief time given her. Byock ignores the fact that no one choosing to hasten death under the existing laws (four states now have the law, two others allow aid-in-dying) is committing suicide; they are being killed by their disease. No one has been, or will be, “euthanized.” The United States is not the Netherlands. He also ignores the fact that in the long years of Oregon’s successful law – it was first enacted in 1997 – there has been not one report of abuse. Not one.

There is no slippery slope. There is only compassion. Self-determination. Autonomy. Dignity. Grace. Peace. Why should they not be legal?

I respect the medical and literary achievements of Ira Byock. But I’m sorry: the doctor does not always know best.

Wise Words from Doctor Turned Patient

Bob-baldric

Not every doctor gets an extended view of what his or her patients experience. But one who did – and has shared both the experience and its message(s) is a recently recovered friend and end-of-life issues colleague of this writer, Robert Liner, MD. Liner spent 20 years as an Ob/Gyn with clinical and teaching positions, principally at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, followed by 20 years in private practice of prenatal diagnosis and gynecologic ultrasound. Among his exhausting list of interests and endeavors are piano lessons, playwriting, poetry, working to publish an illustrated lullaby — and serving on the Leadership Council of Compassion & Choices of N.CA. (And occasional adventures into designing menswear, such as a reincarnation of the ancient ‘Baldric‘, modeled above, which Liner feels makes a lot more sense than the necktie.)

Not long ago, though, all of these – plus a simultaneous major house move and recent new marriage to longtime lady friend – were severely complicated by a bout with life-threatening illness.

“A year ago, on my sixty-ninth birthday,” Liner wrote in an article that recently ran in San Francisco Medicine, “I checked into Kaiser Hospital for work-up of a chronic cough, back pain, severe anemia and a low-grade fever. Believing that patients often overreact to symptoms and seek medical attention prematurely, I had let things go a bit far. I’d been easily fatigued and a bit short of breath, but when a couple of days prior to my hospital admission my wife saw me leaving food on my plate at a favorite restaurant, she insisted on taking me to the ER. I told her this would be an abuse of ER resources but, once there… watching two units of blood being transfused into me, I brilliantly arrived at (the same) conclusion: I was seriously ill.”

Liner covers the days of his hospitalization with openness and humor: “Generally, when getting medical care, I avoid mentioning that I’m a physician. Even experienced providers sometimes have steadier hands when not aware they’re administering to a physician. Or, for that matter, to a malpractice attorney.” (You can read the entire, illuminating piece in the current issue of San Francisco Medicine. It is a significant message to physicians, and an informative and reassuring message to anyone facing hospitalization.)

Liner emerged from more than six months of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and “a lot of drugs” with his B-cell lymphoma in complete remission and a low percentage chance of recurrence. But in addition to the firsthand lessons for physicians and patients about illness, he offers a powerful lesson for all of us about dying – since all of us, patient and doctor alike, do eventually die. Liner and his wife faced that possibility throughout a 36-hour period in which it seemed likely that his disease would, in fact, be terminal; they faced it with “a profound sadness.” But he explains:

“There was nothing irrational about that sadness. Patients who are genuinely terminally ill and who seek physician aid in controlling the time and circumstances of their deaths should not be thought of as irrational or pathologically depressed. If, unexpectedly, my lymphoma recurs, the prognosis would be ‘dismal.’ If that happens, I believe it should be within the scope of ethical, legal medical practice for my doctor to provide me with a lethal prescription – a key to the exit.

“Physician aid in dying is something distinct from suicide. The disease would be killing me. No compelling state interest here. No slippery slope. Only a decision to be made by me as a patient, along with my family and my doctor. As a physician and as a patient, I see this as a fundamental liberty interest and as sound, compassionate practice of the art of medicine. Of, course, where my death is concerned, I’d rather skip the whole thing.”

Wouldn’t we all.

 

 

Laboratories of the States: The good… and then, the very bad and ugly

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

Will a few states rule the United States? Or fundamentally change it? And if so, who are the winners and losers? Depending on your point of view, this “laboratory-of-the-states” business is good news today… or not.

The metaphor dates to the dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a 1932 case, New State Ice Company v. Liebmann and is often used today to assert the success of one social program or another. The best most recent — and decidedly successful — laboratory-of-the-state demonstration is Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. This writer’s extraordinary attorney friend Kathryn Tucker published a paper in the 2008 Michigan Law Review, when she was Director of Legal Affairs for Compassion & Choices, titled “In the Laboratory of the States.” Tucker wrote, “Because Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has proven both useful and harmless, this Article concludes that it is time for other states to follow Oregon’s lead and enact their own legislation to allow their citizens an alternative to what otherwise could be a prolonged and painful death from terminal illness.”

Tucker deserves much of the credit for expanding the Oregon law into the movement that now seems a clear national trend, along with Compassion & Choices (full disclosure: this writer has long been a C&C supporter, volunteer and local board member). Washington and Vermont have passed similar bills and Montana wisely concluded that it’s none of the state’s business what a doctor and patient decide to do, making physician aid in dying now legal in those states. A handful of other states have pending bills and still others are mounting strong movements. So Oregon’s laboratory of success is likely to be the nation’s overall policy in the foreseeable future, and we’re all better off for that. (Opposition has come from religious and political forces that hold onto a belief that God requires some sort of existential suffering be visited upon Her dying creatures.)

The laboratory-of-the-states pathway is both effective and well trodden, said San Jose State Professor/author Larry Gerston at a recent Commonwealth Club political panel event. The panel was looking at other current trends, but Gerston specifically cited the Oregon Death with Dignity model as an example of how it all works.

Now — what if Texas becomes a laboratory for the denial of reproductive rights?

In Texas, just for a rough overview, recent laws have passed requiring parental notification and now parental consent; requiring abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers with hospital-grade operating rooms; requiring women who seek abortions to submit to ultrasounds and then wait 24 hours for the procedure. The list of harsh, medically unnecessary restrictions and requirements is long, and a clear violation of both ‘best medical practice’ and women’s rights.

It is worth noting who are the winners and losers in these state laboratories. In Oregon, the winners are we the people everywhere. Few of us would turn down the right to a humane and compassionate death, which is made a possible choice by death-with-dignity laws. Losers? No one. No one is compelled to choose a hastened death, anywhere, any time.

In Texas, however, the scorecard is seriously skewed. The winners are archconservatives that have learned that this is a good way to get votes. Winners also include those, men and women alike, whose religion teaches that life begins at conception and thus all abortion is wrong. This writer can appreciate those who hold such views, but it is not possible to uphold the rights of a fetus without denying the right of the woman in whose body it resides. Many of us come down on the side of already-alive women and on the doctrine of church/state separation.

And the losers in Texas: women. All women. Primarily they are women without money or resources, who are frequently disadvantaged and disproportionately women of color. These women are already turning to desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies; increasingly they are turning up in emergency rooms with failed attempts to self-abort. To a lesser degree, but still worth considering, the losers include those — men, women, boys, girls — who need the other services provided by rapidly closing clinics: birth control, sex education, STD testing, breast cancer screening and many other critically important needs that will now go unmet.

It’s hard to contemplate the win-lose picture of this Texas laboratory. But if it indeed becomes a laboratory-of-the-states argument in upcoming Supreme Court cases, and elsewhere, the losers will be all of us. You and me. We the people.