I have witnessed many deaths in my job as a surgical oncologist and scientist. I spend the majority of my days trying to help people survive cancer. Sometimes, however, the disease is incurable, and twice, when I was practicing in Oregon, I aided terminally ill patients in dying peacefully by writing a prescription for them. It was a wrenching moral and professional dilemma, the first time a patient asked me to prescribe aid-in-dying medications.
After walking that path with my patient however, I grew to believe so strongly in my patients’ right to medical aid in dying that I became a public advocate for this cause. Knowing exactly what some patients endure without this option is why I am immensely thankful to see California’s End of Life Option Act reinstated on June 15 by the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal. While the argument leading to the temporary prohibition was procedural, the consequences for patients who were seeking this relief could not have been more concrete.
Opponents worry that patients may be coerced into premature death. Data from the Oregon Health Authority proves otherwise, and I, personally, have never seen more determined, decisive action than in patients who opt for medical aid in dying. Real coercion happens when states enforce a dying process that patients don’t want. To illustrate, I want to share, with the families’ permission, the stories of two deaths: one that affirmed the individual’s life, and one that was needlessly cruel.
Although I’ve admired the courage of patients who fought cancer until their last breaths, I equally admire the strength of Cody Curtis, a vibrant mother of two, who took a different path. Faced with incurable liver cancer, Cody managed her intermittent fevers, declining energy, and external drains poking out of her abdomen. But when she began to require weekly drainage of 5 liters of fluid, she chose medical aid in dying. I was with Cody and her family at her death, and her determination, combined with the love in that room, will never leave me.
Mark McEwen was not granted this option. When I met him, his legs, that only months earlier biked along Albuquerque’s Bosque with his beloved dogs, were stretching the seams of 3XL sweatpants, due to edema. His liver tumor was too advanced for treatment. He sought medical aid in dying, which New Mexico’s legal system had allowed at that point as a result of a lawsuit, Morris v. New Mexico, I filed with another physician and a cancer patient with the legal assistance of Compassion & Choices and the ACLU of New Mexico. The state hospital where I was practicing, however, forbid me, as their employee, to prescribe this option until they completed a glacial committee evaluation of the process. It took too long.
His wife called, sobbing, three days before he died. Mark was now delirious and falling out of bed, crying out as his skin split open, oozing fluid. She couldn’t get his now 200-pound body back into bed, so they lay on the floor together, him confused and scared, her in agony, knowing this was exactly what he had feared. Mark had lived a beautiful life, which the bureaucracy of the state disfigured at the end.
Thankfully the state of California is currently allowing adult, terminally ill patients this option. I pray this continues, and that other states follow.
Dr. Katherine Morris is a surgical oncologist in Oklahoma. She formerly practiced medicine in Oregon and was featured in the documentary “How to Die in Oregon.”
Opinion: Court was right to reinstate California’s end of life option