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Editorial: Participation in assisted suicide law up 43 percent

Participation in the state’s Death With Dignity Act rose an astounding 43 percent last year with 175 people people given lethal doses of medication, according to the state Department of Health’s annual report. That means nearly 550 people have acted on that right since the assisted suicide law went into effect in 2009.

“Those who died after receiving the lethal medications were between the ages of 29 and 95,” a news release from the state agency states. “More than 95 percent of participating patients lived west of the Cascades. Following the trend in previous years, many of the patients who received lethal doses of medication listed their concern over loss of independence as a reason for participating.”

Not everybody who received a lethal dose of medication this past year actually used it. Some died naturally. Others have yet to follow up on the required reports. Of those who have reports on file from this past year are 80 men and 71 women.

As it happens, I actually know one of the women who participated and died.

I never thought I’d know anybody who decided this was the way they wanted to go. I guess I never really gave it much thought.

A neighbor of mine, who I saw and talked to nearly everyday, had taken a turn for the worse. She had multiple sclerosis, a disease which led to her early retirement. She lived alone and used a walker to get around. I would help her a lot. Little things mostly. She had someone who would come and do cleaning for her. But, if her Internet wasn’t working or she needed some milk, I’d pick it up for her. Sometimes, we would just talk about our lives.

She was an art teacher that had taught in the Puget Sound area and actually had some of her work in a few galleries. Because of her multiple sclerosis, she found a second life doing online art and working on avatars. The graphics she created were pretty amazing.

But, on top of the multiple sclerosis, she suddenly had cancer. She was nowhere to be found for about a month.

She sent me a message in October: “My situation is not tolerable. I am mostly paralyzed and I have metastasized breast cancer as well as Hepatitis C. I am facing warehousing in a nursing home and I don’t want that. I would like to have a peaceful early death. I need to do it soon. My relatives support me in my desire for an early death.”

By December, she had received a lethal dose of medication and taken it.

She’s listed in the annual report. Her name’s not there. None of the names are in the report. But she’s one of the statistics — and I just happen to know her story. As I read the report, I can’t help but see her story in the statistics.

The report notes that there were 173 participants in the program last year. Of those, 159 are known to have died with 119 dying from a lethal dose of medication, 26 dying without taking the medication and 14 who died, but their reports were never filed with the state.

Last year, there were 121 participants and 116 confirmed deaths.

The report doesn’t break down by county where the people were from.

Of the 159 participants who died, 77 percent had cancer like she did, 15 percent had neuro-degenerative disease, including Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and 8 percent had other illnesses, including heart and respiratory disease.

The report notes that of the 145 people who died and the state received an “after death report,” 91 percent reported to their health care provider concerns about loss of autonomy like she probably did, 79 percent reported to their health care provider concerns about loss of dignity and 89 percent reported to their health care provider concerns about loss of the ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable — just like my friend.

It’s also interesting that three-quarters of those who died had at least some college education like she did. Most died at home and were in hospice care.

It took less than 25 weeks for 130 of those who died, between the first oral request for the medication to when they ultimately died. The range was between two weeks and 73 weeks, according to the report.

It took between two minutes to 41 hours between when they ingested the lethal dose to when they ultimately died. Only three people had complications when they regurgitated the medicine, according to the report.

Sometimes, reading off statistics can sound so cold. But the statistics help people understand why people choose to use the death with dignity law.

I’m not hear to judge. I’m not here to defend or advocate for the law. The law is here. But it gives me some understanding that she wasn’t alone out there when she made her choice.

I’m preferring to remember her laugh and voice during the good times.

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at editor@thevidette.com