In January 1993, my husband Kenny was diagnosed with tongue cancer. As a veteran of the New York City Fire Department, he had been exposed to toxins that caused his squamous cell carcinoma. Doctors thought Kenny would be dead in less than five years. He survived to father two sons and was a valuable contributor to society for 21 more years.
That 21-year survival was not easy, however. By the end, Kenny had lost everything that the rest of us take for granted. He couldn’t eat, drink, breath normally, or sleep for more than a couple hours at a time. He spent his last three months in hospitals, and by the end, he couldn’t get out of bed. But he never stopped seeing value in his life. Kenny died on August 2, 2014.
During Kenny’s last year, I would hear news about Brittany Maynard and her quest to legalize assisted suicide. She didn’t want to live if it meant she would experience suffering. I felt bad for her confused perspective and that she didn’t recognize that her life still had value for herself and her family despite the suffering. I was immersed in the most painful experiences of my life, but I saw that Kenny’s actions were inspiring people to accept their own hardships with courage and humility.
A recently-introduced bill in the New York Assembly would make assisted suicide legal. A key provision in the bill is that doctors must determine that the patient will die from their disease within six months. The doctors were off by 16 years with my husband, and studies have shown that no doctor could predict the time of death accurately more than 50 percent of the time. Basing law off such poor statistic evidence is irresponsible, especially when lives are on the line.
In considering why our family was able to handle terminal illness better than many others, I have come to recognize that we had all of the resources we needed. Kenny had family support, good insurance, excellent medical care, palliative care services, and strong communities supporting our whole family.
Our palliative care physician explained that they evaluate a patient’s “total pain” — that pain is not just physical. It can be emotional pain. Pain associated with loss — loss of fatherhood, loss of professional or other roles. The pain of financial worries or leaving others with financial worries can be the thing patients suffer from the most. Or spiritual pain, spiritual distress.
Plus, when you have cancer or any serious illness, regular life doesn’t stop. The washing machine still breaks down, the car get flat tires, kids still throw up in the middle of the night. It can be those things that cause us to break down, to feel that we no longer have the strength to go on. So, what we would be asking of a terminally ill New Yorker, if assisted suicide is legalized, is to make a life-and-death decision when they are at the absolute lowest point of their lives. What if, rather than a choice between life and assisted suicide, we worked to provide them with the benefits of the total pain control that Kenny had?
To prove this point, we see that in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal the longest, pain and suffering aren’t even in the top five reasons listed by those requesting lethal drugs. Most often the loss of autonomy and dignity or being a burden on caregivers are the driving reasons.
Now consider that there is no requirement for terminally ill patients to have a psychiatric analysis, even though some terminally ill patients are clinically depressed. In Oregon, several patients who requested lethal drugs and later died by ingesting them were clinically depressed. Rather than treating the mental disorder or normal depressed feelings, we are burdening patients further by suggesting that suicide is an acceptable treatment option.
Life has value through the joy and the sorrows. Even the hardships. We didn’t spend precious time trying to figure out if and when Kenny should kill himself; we lived each day for all that it had to offer instead. When people choose to end their lives prematurely, whether it be with a bullet to the head or a lethal dose of prescription meds, it sends the opposite message.
As a loyal New Yorker, I appeal to our elected officials to continue our great state’s tradition of excellence and leadership by rejecting this assisted suicide legislation once and for all. Rather than waste precious time year after year battling this controversial and misguided bill, let’s come together to formulate a better plan that will provide all New Yorkers with the total pain control they need to live their lives out to their natural end.
Lynda Holler lives in Brewster.
Source: “Commentary: Find better plan than suicide for terminally ill,” TimesUnion.com