Hey there, dear readers. I’ve recently received some news that has shaken me, confused me, and, finally, left me with a modicum of begrudging peace. The following is my attempt to explain.
The Script: Death With Dignity Step-by-Step
1️⃣ Patient seeking Death With Dignity (DWD) meets with a Client Services Coordinator and then two doctors:
Consulting Physician: Verifies terminal diagnosis and 6-month prognosis.
Attending Physician: Conducts the DWD eligibility assessment, files paperwork, and eventually prescribes the life-ending medications.
2️⃣ Patient makes two documented oral requests for DWD with a minimum of 15 days between.
3️⃣ Patient submits written request for life-ending medications, witnessed by two people, to Attending Physician.
4️⃣ Attending Physician sends prescription order for life-ending medications to pharmacy.
5️⃣ Patient or surrogate picks up prescription.
6️⃣ Patient self-administers life-ending medications (drinks meds dissolved in liquid) at the time of their choosing.
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
Speaking as a terminal patient who has been through this process and who has qualified for Death With Dignity, the peace of mind from having the legal choice to end my suffering when it becomes unbearable is immeasurable, and my gratitude to all who helped make this the law here in Washington State, and to all who volunteer to assist patients like me through this process, runs very, very deep.
Now, imagine you are me, think of all I’ve been through with ALS, all I’ve written about here on this website, particularly all the stuff in the past 6-12 months about the strangeness of outliving a 6-month prognosis, and imagine you’ve been hanging out for quite some time between steps 5 and 6 of the step-by-step listed above, when one day you are informed that the Attending Physician — who so kindly guided you through the DWD eligibility assessment, who answered a million of your questions with patience and care, and who prescribed the life-ending medications that are now safely stored away in the recesses of your refrigerator — has suffered a very serious injury, having accidentally fallen backwards down a flight of stairs, severing his cervical spine, leaving him completely paralyzed and in chronic pain.
And then, imagine you’re still me five months later, just barely over a week after celebrating your 57th birthday, a birthday you were certain you wouldn’t be alive for, when you learn that your DWD Attending Physician — practitioner of medicine for 40-some years, volunteer with End of Life Washington, teacher of mindful living and self-compassion at The Haven retreat center, passionate gardener, committed partner to his beloved husband of 39 years, father, grandfather, possessor of a lovely baritone singing voice, etc. — has died of complications from the spinal injury.
Veering off-script like this really threw me for a loop. I’ve been reminded of my Shakespeare — The time is out of joint… — except, unlike Hamlet, I do not feel some cursed responsibility to set it right.
No, this isn’t a matter of wrong or right, and whether it does or does not make sense is moot.
On Sense & Senselessness
So, let’s get one thing straight right away: Regardless of how beautiful and good a person this doctor was, regardless of how I already LOVED him after our first 30-minute Zoom call, regardless of just how much this news breaks my godamned heart…
I fucking HATE the phrase Senseless Death and the corresponding suggestion that some deaths are, um, senseful, i.e. that some people deserve to die a painful premature death and others do not.
4.5 people are born every second.
2 people die in that same second.
Countless other lifeforms are also born or die in this mere blink of an eye.
All things must pass.
Nevertheless, we get attached to things and people, it’s painful when we lose people and certain things, and I think we’re better off that this loss hurts us, for it may be the very thing that makes empathy possible.
My Death With Dignity Attending Physician, the merciful agent of my eventual death, is now dead, but I’m still alive.
R.I.P., Dear Dr. Wayne Dodge. I never imagined that you’d cross over before me, but since you have, though my body is unexpectedly holding on and I’ve still got some things I’d like to do, I will be wrapping up soon, and so, maybe when I arrive we can meet up, hang out, and sing some songs together?