Let patients decide how they want to die

Peter A. Rasmussen, M.D., in Salem, Ore., in January 2006.
Peter A. Rasmussen, M.D., in Salem, Ore., in January 2006. Statesman Journal

Twenty years ago I was one of a handful of physicians who campaigned for Oregon’s groundbreaking Death with Dignity Act.

Today, I have the same fatal cancer as Brittany Maynard. I urge Californians to support Senate Bill 128, the End of Life Option Act, introduced by state Sens. Lois Wolk and Bill Monning.

One of the greatest indignities of dying from a progressive disease is the loss of autonomy. All our lives, we are urged to take responsibility for our actions. Then, as we approach death, we are told that we have lost that responsibility. The right to decide the exact details of where, when and how we will die is determined not by ourselves but by our illness.

If the process involves pain, nausea, seizures or confusion, well, that’s just too bad. If family and friends have to watch our life ebb away over days or even weeks, well, that’s just too bad.

Most of us understand that death is a non-negotiable part of life; most of us don’t fear death nearly as much as the suffering that may be endured as we approach that death.

Besides being a board certified oncologist, I am a board certified specialist in hospice and palliative medicine. We hospice staff promise that pain and other symptoms can be controlled, and this is true. But all too often that control comes with side effects including drowsiness and even sedation into confusion, agitation or permanent sleep.

Brittany Maynard acted in a way we all respect when she took responsibility for her own life. It’s a shame that she was forced to move away from her California home to exercise this fundamental right.

Over these past 20 years, Oregon’s law has worked flawlessly. Safeguards have protected against inappropriate use by seriously depressed persons. There have been no reports of coercion, failure or misdeeds. Instead, about 100 Oregonians each year use this law to assure their dignity as they die, in virtually every case surrounded by loved ones and supported in their final decision.

Personally, I take comfort in knowing that when my glioblastoma produces symptoms that can’t be controlled by even the best hospice care, as an Oregonian I will retain the final human dignity of control over the circumstances of my death.

I applaud Wolk and Monning for their forward-thinking efforts to offer Californians the peace of mind and a compassionate response to suffering in their final days.

Peter Rasmussen is a retired physician living in Salem, Ore.