Op-Ed

Jean-Marie Welch: Allow death with dignity; Ky. needs law giving patients control

Jean-Marie Welch of Lexington is a retired arts educator who was the caregiver to a sister who died of brain cancer at age 55.
Jean-Marie Welch of Lexington is a retired arts educator who was the caregiver to a sister who died of brain cancer at age 55.

Once in a while, an ordinary person leaves behind a legacy that touches a nerve in all of us. It gets us thinking, gets us talking and — in the case of Brittany Maynard — it might spur us to take action.

Maynard was the 29-year old woman with terminal brain cancer, who was able to use physician assisted suicide (PAS) in choosing to end her life before extreme pain and debilitation set in.

Her legacy is powerful and enormous. She went public to help bring this subject out of the shadows.

Unfortunately, Maynard's decision was honored only because she relocated from her home in California to Oregon, one of five states with death-with-dignity laws.

This should not be necessary. This law needs to be enacted in every state.

Patients dealing with a six-month prognosis, especially the elderly and infirm, have enough to deal with without having to relocate to another state.

I frequently find myself in discussions with my peers — baby boomers and beyond — about end-of-life decisions. Most of us want to be able to exit this world gracefully and comfortably when the time comes, and if this entails "drinking the Kool-aid," then, so be it.

But we deserve to do this under the care of a compassionate physician — not in an illegal hit-and-miss situation.

Seniors are prompted to make sure we have advance directives, a living will and a health-care surrogate, but that's where it ends.

In Kentucky there are no legal choices when our pain medication no longer works, or when we are suffering debilitation beyond our will to live. We must live in fear that our wishes won't be carried out.

Opposition to PAS is usually anchored in religion, and in one's view of God. Since there are many beliefs and many views of God, why should one take precedence over another? Many of us believe that a loving God would never want a patient with a terminal illness to suffer a prolonged and agonizing death when a merciful medical intervention is available.

What kind of God would that be?

I recently came across an article online by Dr. Ken Murray, entitled: "How Doctors Die." (Saturday Evening Post, 2013).

He reports that physicians often opt out of a long, painful exit when they are diagnosed with terminal illnesses. They often forgo radiation, chemotherapy and other debilitating drugs and, instead, choose quality of life during their remaining time.

Most important, they do not hesitate to use lethal medications to ensure a peaceful exit.

Murray also cited incidents where physicians had "Do not resuscitate" tattooed on their chests so that there could be no mistake about their wishes in the final hour.

These doctors expressed no desire to die like many of their patients, and they had the means to make sure they didn't.

Wouldn't it be informative to see what an anonymous opinion poll of heath-care professionals would reveal on this subject?

Mortality is universal, but it's not a cheerful topic or something we like to dwell upon. People are often uncomfortable discussing death with dignity or PAS, which may be the reason the media is reluctant to hold an open forum on the subject.

Compassion and Choices is the organization now lobbying to make PAS legal in more states. I urge anyone who favors a choice to join this organization and to lobby their representatives to legalize the death-with-dignity option in Kentucky.

Many of us would rest more easily knowing that we wouldn't have to move to Oregon if we were to have a prognosis like Maynard's.

And let's keep the debate going.

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