Vermont’s choices for the dying

My best friend Cynthia Recupero has tried to get me to promise to help her die someday, if she’s terminally ill and can’t do it herself. My response? I’ll do what I can but will stop short of any actions that would inspire a Lifetime movie about me while I languish in prison.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian gained notoriety -- and served prison time -- for assisting patients who wanted to die. He was 79 in this March 24, 2008 file photo. (Bill Pugliano - GETTY IMAGES)

Jack Kevorkian gained notoriety — and served prison time — for assisting patients who wanted to die. He was 79 in this March 24, 2008, photo. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Maybe it won’t come to that. Vermont will most likely become the fourth state to allow physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to mentally competent terminally ill patients who are believed to have less than six months to live. Supporters call it “death with dignity,” while opponents blast it as “physician-assisted suicide.”

Oregon and Washington have such laws, passed by public referendum, and Montana, too, which was court-ordered. What makes Vermont distinctive is that the law has been passed by the state legislature. Late Monday night, the Vermont House approved the bill 75 to 65 by roll-call vote; the Senate vote was closer, 17 to 13, and Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) is expected to sign the legislation into law.

According to the Associated Press:

For the first three years, Vermont’s law would closely follow the Oregon model, which allows for several safeguards, including requirements that patients state three times — once in writing — that they wish to die. Others include a concurring opinion from a second doctor that a patient has less than six months to live and a finding that the patient is of sound mind.

In 2016, those safeguards would be removed, with the decision becoming a private one between doctor and patient.

Recupero, who’s worked for a local veterinarian 10 years in Overland Park, Kan., has helped with the procedure euphemistically known as putting a pet “to sleep.” She finds it a kinder, gentler death than what we allow humans and says she doesn’t understand why animals deserve to die with dignity while we can’t.

“If you are sick and in pain and you know the end is coming, why is it wrong?” she asks. “If you treated an animal like that — letting it suffer while you just wait for it to die — that treatment would be considered cruel. It’s not morally right.”

I have to wonder what my father would have done if he had known the six weeks of hell he would endure in the hospital after his diagnosis of multiple myeloma.

But I believe medical professionals — at least some of them — already do what they can to relieve unnecessary suffering. My 70-year-old grandmother, dying of a rare blood cancer, relied on kidney dialysis to keep her alive. Her nephrologist suggested we discontinue the procedure, but death by kidney failure isn’t pretty and we argued against it. In the end, she died just a few days after our discussion.

At the time, I was angry that the doctor would even suggest what he did. Now I understand. We need to look at the choices in the process of dying.

We don’t want to talk about death. We try to deny it will even happen. And yet it’s inevitable. Whether you want every heroic measure possible to prolong life or you want to end it on your own terms rather than suffer through a lingering death, you need to consider your options.

And hope that the law in your state will give you the right to make your own choice.

diana-reeseDiana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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