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Op-ed: Let's accept a more compassionate death for terminally ill

Published February 15, 2014 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

David now is silent in death. On Dec. 17, 2013, he requested that I tell the story of his and his mother's terminal illnesses.

He said: "Suffering has been great these two months prior to this my 51st birthday. Why must I be treated with feeding tubes to receive opiods, why must I linger paralyzed, nauseous, weak, in extreme pain for weeks, why must my family watch me waste away from cancer spread through my body? Dying for the incurable should not be as the curse of Job, but an exercise in compassion."

Both approached death courageously and without remorse. Both chose to die by the only legal means available: dehydration and starvation. Both wished for a more humane death, as allowed in Oregon, Washington and Montana.

JoAnn Olson Keller died on Aug. 21, 2004. David Richard Keller died on Dec. 28, 2013. Both suffered from incurable metastatic cancer: JoAnn's brain and lung metastasis caused seizures and shortness of breath; David's bone and spinal canal metastasis caused pain and paralysis of his legs with incontinence of bowel and bladder.

Their disease was merciless, but worse for David as suffocation from pneumonia complicated his relentless bone pain.

JoAnn lived for her family and rejoiced in caring and playing with her growing grandchildren. Her joy centered around her home as she produced memorable Sunday family feasts always complemented with festive decorations, or created scrapbooks of her life, her marriage and the lives of her children and grandchildren.

David loved life. As a philosophy professor at Utah Valley University, he took pleasure in teaching, writing and research. With his wife, Anina, he relished biking, hiking and camping in the mountains of the Wasatch, the red rock canyons of Southern Utah or motoring the back roads of this vast land.

JoAnn and David fought their disease until suffering erased all quality from their existence; they chose hospice to hasten their death through starvation and dehydration.

What is the alternative to this brutal path to death? Some politicians and religious leaders oppose people's individual right to assisted dying, using the misnomer assisted suicide as did a Boston Catholic bishop, oblivious to suffering of terminal illness, asserting "the sheer brutality of helping people to kill themselves."

But JoAnn and David saw brutality in the agony of their misery. This bishop misinterprets the torment of terminal illness ­— calling brutality what should be labeled compassion.

Some, like me, contend terminal patients, suffering from cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or other incurable diseases should have the right to legally make their own choice. The Oregon experience demonstrates that anxiety and fear are softened when patients are allowed to make their own autonomous choice.

In 2012, Oregon reported only 77 people completed assisted dying out of 115 who requested it; in 2013, 71 completed it. There is no slippery slope.

To die surrounded by loved ones, in one's own home, should engender comfort and allay fear — in David's case among Christmas decorations, in his own bed with his doctor wife his caregiver; in JoAnn's, in the comfortable surroundings of her beloved home with me, her husband, as caregiver.

Since we live, we must die. How will we die? Some, quickly, others slowly, with great suffering.

Caregivers should not be threatened with a murder charge. The best aspects of our legal system offer us protections for individual choice; the best aspects of our religions teach us compassion and mercy for those who suffer.

There should be no legal or religious opposition to the humane wish to alleviate unnecessary and meaningless misery.

David R. Keller directed the Center for the Study of Ethics at UVU. Richard H. Keller is a retired physician.