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State’s ‘Death With Dignity’ law is flawed for some patients

Whatcom family found few options for suffering aunt

By Ted Royal, Guest Writer

My 96-year-old aunt, Julianna Royal Guy, passed away June 25. She took a fall about 10 days before that and knew she couldn’t go home without care 24/7. The cost of that was prohibitive.

She was plotting her own demise for at least 15 years, so she wouldn’t become a burden on anyone. 

She had me swear that I would “pull the plug” when it came time if she was no longer able to make that decision, 15 years ago. I was her durable power of attorney for financial and medical charges. I am also the executor of her estate.

She wanted to use the state’s Death With Dignity Act so she wouldn’t have to suffer the last, painful days of her wonderful life. Well, that was a pipe dream.

While she was in the hospital, at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, she told the doctors she didn’t want to be helped to get “better.” She said, “You’re here to help me get better, I want to go the opposite direction.”

We contacted Death With Dignity and found out what we had to do to accomplish the act of death. There are certain parameters that must be met; she met them. 

We were given literature about what we had to do.

The hospital refused to lift one finger to help facilitate the actions. They actually said, “You cannot do that here, it’s not allowed.”

We were told there are only a few doctors in the state who will sign off on it, and none are located here. Also, you have to make a formal request to go see the doctor in your permanent medical records, wait 14 days and request again. Then you have to physically go see one.

Lying in a hospital bed, unable to stand, made that impossible for her. Then, onto a long-term care facility once they stopped monitoring her, at her request, at the hospital. 

Don’t get me wrong, the nurses and staff at St Joe’s were great. They are just under the rules of their employer.

There was not one long-term care facility that would take her, through the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, with the idea of using the Death With Dignity Act. She had to tell them that she would not try to use it in order to be able to go to one, which I will not name. 

But it would seem they are all the same.

So, our family had to watch her, and help her, refuse to eat and drink so she could “go fly away into the clouds” like she wanted. It took an agonizing three to four days for her to finish breathing. They gave her morphine every hour, even when she could no longer swallow.

So why couldn’t we use the Death With Dignity Act?

They make it so hard to do — the law must change. It’s perfect for an able-bodied person with stage four cancer with less than six months to live. They can walk in and have the doctors sign off, go get the cocktail from a pharmacy, go home and drink it and die. But that doesn’t work for someone who is not of sound mind and can’t be mobile.

Something needs to be done to make it easier.

Ted Royal, a Whatcom County resident since 2003, is a retired Puget Sound Energy lineman. 

Editor’s Note: PeaceHealth’s 2019 systemwide end-of-life policy stipulates that physician-assisted suicide is  “… deemed wrong according to the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church … As a Catholic health system, PeaceHealth is prohibited from participating in assisted suicide.”

Washington state lawmakers this spring revised the Death With Dignity law. The new law reduces the current 15-day waiting period to seven days, allows nurse practitioners and physician assistants to participate in the program, and authorizes prescriptions to be mailed or delivered to a patient. Family members said the changes would not have benefitted their aunt in the above case.

This story was updated at 10:07 p.m. Aug. 8, 2023, to clarify the provisions of the amended Death With Dignity law.

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