Two Sides of the First Assisted SuicideMay 27th, 2009 by Steven Gardner
News that what voters approved had in fact been carried out in the “Death with Dignity” measure struck people on both sides of the debate with some degree of sadness, but for different reasons.
Read the New York Times account of the death of Linda Fleming, and the Seattle Times version, which includes some reporting from the New York Times. One is somewhat clinical, the other a bit more emotional.
Then read the press releases by the two organizations that
competed for voter will in the 2008 November general election.
First Terminally-Ill Washingtonian Uses Death with Dignity Act
Death with Dignity Law Aids in Ending Unbearable Suffering; Provides Comfort and Peace of Mind
SEATTLE, WA – Compassion & Choices of Washington (C&C), a nonprofit organization advocating for better end-of-life care and choices, said that Linda Fleming, age 66, of Sequim, last night became the first terminally ill Washingtonian to die using the state’s Death with Dignity Act. Linda was diagnosed just one month ago with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and was told she was actively dying.
Linda was stunned when she received her terminal diagnosis, as
she had only recently begun feeling discomfort. Linda’s disease
progressed rapidly and her pain worsened dramatically. “I had only
recently learned how to live in the world as I had always wanted
to, and now I will no longer be here. So my fatal disease arrived
at a most
inopportune time,” said Linda.
After working with her physician and C&C’s Client Support
volunteers to carefully consider her choices and make her
end-of-life decisions, Linda took her prescribed medication on
Thursday evening at home with her family, her dog and her physician
at her bedside. “The pain became unbearable, and it was only going
to get worse,” said
Linda in explaining her decision to use the Death with Dignity law. Linda died peacefully knowing that she had a choice in controlling her suffering and time of death from pancreatic cancer. “I am a very spiritual person, and it was very important to me to be conscious, clear-minded and alert at the time of my death. The powerful pain medications were making it difficult to maintain the state of mind I wanted to have at my death. And I knew I would have to increase them. I am grateful that the Death with Dignity law provides me the choice of a death that fits my own personal beliefs.”
“When a cure is no longer possible, the Death With Dignity Act adds another option for patients dying from a terminal illness. The prescribed medication gives patients peace of mind that they can use to take control of their dying if suffering becomes intolerable,” said Dr. Tom Preston, MD, a cardiologist and C&C’s medical director, “Most dying patients experience suffering. The Death With Dignity Act allows a physician to help his patients maintain as much control and dignity as they can at the end of life. Last night, the Death With Dignity Act provided a way to honor this patient’s final decision.”
Dr. Preston said that terminal patients are deriving comfort and peace of mind from prescriptions issued under the new law, and that the law is working as voters and its sponsors intended.
John Peyton dies of ALS on Thursday, May 21st
“In stark contrast, Washington State resident and assisted suicide opponent John Peyton, who was featured in ads and on TV opposing Initiative 1000, died naturally and comfortably at home of ALS the same day Linda Fleming became the first victim of assisted suicide in Washington State,” Eileen Geller, president of True Compassion Advocates, reported today. “Just days before his death, John expressed continued concern about the legalization of assisted suicide in Washington, stating that he ‘felt it victimized people with terminal illnesses and exploited their fears,’” she added.
“Speaking clearly and with passion, even as his life and breath waned, John expressed solidarity with all those experiencing life-limiting illnesses and stated his ‘worry that people with disabilities, those in tough financial circumstances and without adequate caregiving support would feel pressure to take a lethal drug overdose.’”
Just before he passed away John said: “I am blessed with a loving wife and family and wonderful caregivers. I worry that people who don’t have the same support will feel pressure to choose assisted suicide,” Ms. Geller reported, adding “John Peyton was a hero in life and in death. He showed us how to live with real dignity and die naturally and comfortably. He literally gave his last breaths to advocate for those at risk for assisted suicide. John Peyton demonstrates what I have seen in thousands of dying patients over 25 years working as a hospice nurse—that no one needs to die in pain or uncomfortably, and that people with life-limiting illnesses need competent, supportive care, not lethal drugs.”
Geller, a long-time leader of opposition to physician-assisted suicide, offered condolences to the families of both Peyton and Fleming. She contrasted Peyton’s death with that of Ms. Fleming’s: “Tragically, on the very same day John Peyton died, Linda Fleming of Sequim became the first person in our state to die from assisted suicide via lethal drug overdose. Ms. Fleming’s death gives witness to Mr. Peyton’s concern for the disabled and the poor being at particular risk for assisted suicide.” (According to the New York Times, 5/23/09, Ms. Fleming was divorced and filed for bankruptcy in 2007. The Times quoted her lawyer, Hugh Haffner, as saying Ms Fleming “had been unable to work because of a disability and lived in subsidized housing on $643 in monthly disability checks.”)
Geller also expressed concern that the extensive media coverage surrounding Ms. Fleming’s death by assisted suicide may have inadvertently sent the wrong message to people with life-limiting illness and their families—the message that assisted suicide, rather than good medical care and improved community support, is the solution to end-stage illness or disability. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Geller. “As a caregiver to two close family members who died naturally and comfortably from pancreatic cancer and a hospice nurse to many people with pancreatic or other cancers, I am deeply concerned that vulnerable ill people’s fears not be exploited. Excellent comfort care, pain control, symptom management, and support are available through hospice and palliative care.”
Geller concluded: “Assisted suicide is a tragedy which heightens fear and increases misinformation about living and dying. We need to advocate for truly compassionate care, not false and misleading choices.”