We’re proud of the Vermont Legislature for moving the death with dignity legislation out of the House and to conference committee and likely action. In this age of medical miracles in which life can be prolonged far past any natural state, it provides a choice for some patients to suffer less and die on their own terms.
It strikes particularly near to my family at this particular time as my father, 88, lost a brief bout with cancer. He died a week ago Wednesday.
Interestingly, the legislation being considered in Montpelier would not have made much difference to my Dad. Healthy and relatively active until recently, Dad had made the trip by himself to Vermont from Kansas to spend Christmas with his two sons and grandchildren, as was tradition for the past couple of decades. He’s always insisted on renting his own SUV and driving to and from St. Albans and Middlebury unaccompanied. We had a good visit this year, as always, except the snows and storms hit at the wrong time this year (we were without power at Lake Dunmore the few days before Christmas, and afterward a storm cancelled flights on the day he was set to leave and couldn’t get him home for the next couple of days), but he finagled his way onto a limosene service and got to NYC where he was able to catch a flight home to his active life there.
Two weeks later he was in the hospital in Topeka ready to have a cancerous tumor the size of an orange removed from his upper spinal column. We would learn he had inoperable bone cancer in his spine, thus also precluding radiation. He was bed-ridden for the next three months as doctors tried to control the cancer’s spread with chemo medication. By early April we learned the cancer had spread into his liver and other vital organs and that the medicine was not working. He elected to go into hospice care and would die less than three weeks later.
The idea of hurrying his death was not on our radar. Until early April, doctors held out the hope that the cancer medicine might make him better and he’d at least be able to be comfortable in a wheel chair — and more mobile — for some undetermined time. In the meantime, each of us made as many trips as we could to see him in those last couple of months. It was a valuable time to say how much we loved him and how much he had influenced our lives. He had been a wonderful father and done well by all of us. He said that made him happy to hear. We put together digital slide shows and relieved many memories. He tired quickly, but enjoyed the visits.
My sister Susan was able to hold his hands that last Tuesday; and while he could hear her, he wasn’t able to speak or open his eyes. He never woke that next morning and died at 6:10 a.m.
Dad’s case might be an argument against the proposed legislation; an example that shows it’s an undesirable step that is not needed. That’s because doctors could not definitely say how long medicine might be able to keep Dad alive until near the very end, and then we all wanted a bit of time to visit, adjust to the idea and prepare — Dad included. Those were precious and valuable weeks.
Rather, it’s a good example of how unlikely it is that the legislation will be abused, just as the experience in Oregon has proven that feared abuses were largely unfounded. In our experience, the closer death is to a family, the more precious life becomes, and as long as the pain and suffering can be managed well, the time together may be bittersweet but it’s still sweet enough.
Other cases may have involve more pain and suffering for the patient and a death that lingers longer. Dad’s cancer, we’re told, was particularly aggressive. To endure three more months in a semi-conscious state, might have been more suffering than Dad would have wanted and an option might have been welcomed. It is simply an individual choice the government should not prevent.
— Angelo S. Lynn