On Native Ground
THE RIGHT TO DEATH WITH DIGNITY
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- No one wants to die, but if you were faced with a terminal illness, you would probably pick the way that columnist Art Buchwald died - not by his own hand, but in the way and place he chose.
Last February, the doctors told Buchwald that his kidneys were shutting down and he only had a few weeks to live. At age 80, Buchwald didn't want to spent the remaining time in his life hooked up to a dialysis machine. So he decided forgo the aggressive treatment the doctors wanted, and checked into a hospice to die on his own terms.
And something unexpected happened in the interim. He didn't die within a few weeks. His kidneys kept working and he stayed alive. He ended up leaving the hospice last summer and went back to his summer home on Martha's Vineyard to enjoy a steady stream of friends, colleagues and well-wishers as he savored the gift of unexpected time.
He started writing again, and got a book, "Too Soon to Say Goodbye," out of the experience of being told you were about to die, and instead living long enough beyond the doctor's predictions to say all your goodbyes, tie up all the loose ends and leave this world on your own terms.
"I never knew dying could be so much fun," Buchwald wrote last year.
Not all of us get to enjoy our wake and memorial service while we are still among the living, but Buchwald got that gift of a perfect ending to a well-lived life.
I grew up reading Buchwald and I'll always admire him for his gentle humor and his ability to deflate the biggest of egos in 500 words or so. But Buchwald gave us an even bigger gift in the way he died — a reminder of the importance of being able to choose the way we die and being able to spend those final days in an atmosphere of comfort, compassion, control and respect.
Here in Vermont, our lawmakers are in the process of debating a "death with dignity" bill much like the law that Oregon has had for about a decade. A similar bill was introduced in the 2005-06 session of the Vermont Legislature, but failed to win passage.
The provisions of the revived bill are simple. A patient must be a Vermont resident over the age of 18, under a doctor's care and be mentally competent to make the request. A medical determination must be made that the patient has less than six months to live. A second opinion from a qualified physician would then be sought, and presented before approved witnesses, before any further actions are taken.
Throughout the process, the patient would have complete control. He or she would be the only one to initiate or stop the process, and if necessary, be the one to administer the drugs that would induce death. No physician would be compelled to administer these drugs.
The death-with-dignity option would be available only to those who want it and meet the qualifications. Few will likely use it. Oregon's experience with its death with dignity law is instructive. Before it was enacted in 1998, only about 20 percent of terminally ill patients sought hospice care. Today, 54 percent do.
In other words, the goal of the death with dignity legislation is not just giving terminally ill patients a way to kill themselves. It's also about better pain management and greater access to hospice care, so that patients can be comfortable in their final days. It's also about giving the patient absolute control over his or her fate, and giving the terminally ill the peace of mind of knowing that an early exit is available if the suffering becomes too much.
Recent polls showed that about two-thirds of Vermonters support a death with dignity bill, and the wide support crosses over political and religious lines. Few would choose physician-aided suicide, but a process that is totally controlled by the patient, rather than the doctor, upholds the important values of self-determination and personal freedom.
Not all of us will be able to enjoy the kind of death that Art Buchwald had, but we all should have the opportunity to do as he did — to refuse treatment if there's no chance it will prolong or improve the quality of life, to be able to have access to hospice care and pain reduction treatment. He did not opt to kill himself, nor did he have the legal right to do so, but I think that if the pain of the final days are too much to bear, we ought to be able to choose the time and method of our dying.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.