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End-of-life issues challenging despite the law

A man I’ve known for several years recently chose to use the Medical Aid in Dying/End of Life Options Act to end his life.

He was an older man, riddled with illness, a perfect candidate for this decision. The law, passed in Colorado in 2016, allows physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill and suffering patients of sound mind who have been given fewer than six months to live.

What was his right by law, was terribly challenging, considering his illnesses. Two different doctors must verify in writing that the patient is terminal and decisional and not being coerced, and the first doctor must educate the patient about alternatives – counseling,hospice, etc. Well, it’s very difficult to find two doctors here in the Durango area to support the law.

Any doctor affiliated with Mercy Regional Medical Center cannot be involved because of its Catholic ethical and religious directives:

“Centura Health has a long tradition of believing in the sanctity of life, extending compassionate care and relieving suffering. These fundamental values are reflected in the depth and breadth of support and comfort services we offer, including palliative care, hospice care, spiritual care services and mental health services, so patients and their families may live with dignity until the patient’s time of death. Centura Health facilities and providers do not provide medical aid in dying medication or related services.”

Even if doctors are not connected with Mercy, most are still after all this time unwilling to participate. They feel uncomfortable, in that it’s a shift from prolonging life, and their Hippocratic oath to do no harm and prescribe only beneficial treatments. Also, the medical culture is litigious and physicians are scared.

After much research and reaching out, this man finally found two doctors who would support him in his choice on how to end his life. After all the paperwork was done and the prescription written, he then faced the impossibility of having it filled here. Causing more stress to an already difficult situation, he did more research and finally found a pharmacy in Denver that came through for him. He eventually ended his life peacefully at home with loved ones at his side.

In Colorado in 2019 (latest statistics), 170 patients were prescribed medical aid-in-dying medications. Of those, 129 went on to fill their prescriptions. For many qualified patients, the peace of mind that comes from having a prescription ready to be filled is enough. “This report shows the growing progress and acceptance of medical aid in dying among physicians,” said Sam DeWitt, Southwest Regional campaign and outreach manager for Compassion & Choices. However, most of these cases are up on the Front Range. Come on, Durango!

I wrote about this issue in 2017 and again in February 2020. Why is this law nearly impossible to use here in Southwest Colorado? Sixty-five percent of Coloradans approved the law in December 2016.

Many of us are at the age where this must be an easier choice for us, especially with COVID-19 hovering. We invite medical and pharmaceutical communities to honor it and make it straightforward and trouble-free.

Any competent person unbearably suffering an intractable medical condition should have an effortless and uncomplicated option to die legally and peacefully. There is a difference between committing suicide and an elder choosing to end their life to avoid continued suffering from a terminal illness.

Anyway, it’s the law!

Martha McClellan has lived in Durango since 1993 and has been an educator, consultant and writer. Reach her at mmm@bresnan.net.