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111 Californians ended their lives with doctor-prescribed meds in first year of aid-in-dying law

Amanda Friedland, left, adjusts her friend Betsy Davis' sash as Davis lies on a bed during her "Right to Die Party" surrounded by friends and family in Ojai. At the end of the party, the 41-year-old woman diagnosed with ALS took a cocktail of lethal drugs and died, becoming one of the first California residents to take life-ending drugs under a law that gave such an option to the terminally ill.
Amanda Friedland, left, adjusts her friend Betsy Davis' sash as Davis lies on a bed during her "Right to Die Party" surrounded by friends and family in Ojai. At the end of the party, the 41-year-old woman diagnosed with ALS took a cocktail of lethal drugs and died, becoming one of the first California residents to take life-ending drugs under a law that gave such an option to the terminally ill. AP file

On Tuesday, in its first-ever mandated statistical report on California’s aid-in-dying law, the state Department of Public Health cataloged illnesses, ages and other data, but it began with a total: 111 terminally ill adults took doctor-prescribed drugs last year to end their lives.

California’s End of Life Option Act went into effect June 9, 2016, allowing assisted suicide in the state after years of contentious debate. Each year, on or before July 1, the Department of Public Health must provide prescribed information on those who sought and used aid-in-dying drugs.

The majority, or 58.6 percent, of those who sought the drugs suffered from cancer, 18 percent had a neuromuscular disorder such as ALS and Parkinson’s, and others had heart and respiratory diseases. The median age of people using the new law was 73, with 42 percent age 80 and over.

The vast majority of people who took the drugs – 102 out of the 111 – were white, with Asians making up six of the total and blacks and Hispanics at three each. Race figures include people with multiple ethnicities, which accounts for the discrepancy between the announced total and individual numbers of people who took the drugs.

The law helped Californians such as former Marine Tom House, who experienced a precipitous decline in his health as a result of heart disease, colon cancer and failing eyesight. The Sonoma County man took his life in August with 90 capsules of barbiturates prescribed by a physician and dissolved in apple juice. He was 94.

“He was used to running his own show, but his body was betraying him,” said his son, Steve, shortly after the death. “The law happened at the right time for us.”

While 111 people ingested their aid-in-dying drugs, 191 prescriptions were actually written, meaning 80 prescriptions were not taken. The report found that 21 people died of underlying causes, while outcomes were undetermined for 59 individuals who received prescriptions.

“Any unused drug that is prescribed for aid in dying has to be returned in person to either the pharmacy where it was purchased to be destroyed or to another (government-designated) place where it can be destroyed,” said Bob Davila, spokesman for the California State Board of Pharmacy.

Battling colon cancer, Elizabeth Wallner said she considers California's new aid-in-dying law, which takes effect June 9, 2016, a tool to help her and others live their challenged lives on more of their own terms. The law, she said, is not about h

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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