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The right to make decisions about your own health care seems like it would be a foundation of our society. Unfortunately, patient autonomy is too often infringed upon from the church to the courtroom to the emergency room.
I know this from personal experience. My bright and sunny friend Doris was diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer in 2010. We had been best friends for more than 30 years. We shared the birth of children and grandchildren, the death of parents and, always, laughs.
Sadly, battling cancer would not be her only health challenge. After major surgery, and two courses of debilitating chemo and radiation, Doris was struck by a reckless driver while on a walk. She suffered near-fatal injuries.
After nearly three months in the hospital, she returned home. Her life was filled with even more pain, but she soldiered on. During this time, still dealing with traumatic injuries, her cancer returned. Doris's remarkable energy and will began to flag. She confessed to me that she was exhausted — she had witnessed her two sisters die of breast and ovarian cancer. Encouraged by loved ones, however, she agreed to one more round of treatment.
After suffering through treatments again, and beating the cancer for a time, it came roaring back. This time, Doris declared she would take no further treatment, but rather, she determined to enjoy the time she had left with family and friends.
Gradually, Doris became so weak and sick that she couldn't keep up and longed for it to be over. She simply wanted to rest.
On a hot, early July morning, Doris swallowed the painkillers, sleeping pills and tranquilizers she had stockpiled. Leaving a letter of apology containing words of love and a plea for understanding, along with her copy of her advanced directive, she laid down in her bed to peacefully leave this world on her own terms.
Sadly, this was the beginning of a six-day nightmare during which she endured unwanted life-sustaining treatment before artificial ventilation was removed and she was allowed to die.
If Doris had lived in one of the 10 states that authorize medical aid in dying, she could have planned a peaceful death surrounded by her loved ones. Instead, Doris made a desperate attempt to end her suffering, acting in secrecy and desperation, and without the medical support that could have provided the gentle death she longed for.
Whatever your reactions were to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on abortion last summer, its impact on care for people with advanced, terminal illnesses may not be top of mind. But the concept of bodily autonomy and the ability to make health care decisions affect the end of life as much as the beginning.
When a full range of options isn't available, terminally ill people may still seek relief in whichever way they know. I vowed to Doris, in my heart, that I would take up the work of ensuring that no one ever had to endure what she had. I urge Minnesota lawmakers to grant terminally ill Minnesota residents the compassionate option of medical aid in dying.
More than 25 years ago, in November 1994, Oregon passed the nation's first law allowing mentally capable terminally ill adults to have the end-of-life care option of medical aid in dying to peacefully end unbearable suffering. Today, more than one in five people in the U.S. — 22% — live in a jurisdiction where medical aid in dying is authorized, including 10 states and the District of Columbia.
The data demonstrates that concerns about abuse or coercion are unfounded. In decades of experience across all the authorized states, only 5,171 individuals have chosen to use medical aid in dying.
Terminally ill residents don't have the luxury of endless deliberations. They need this option right now. Minnesotans who believe in patient autonomy need to speak up and encourage lawmakers and the governor to pass end-of-life care options legislation this year.
Tara Guy, of Roseville, is a volunteer advocate for Compassion and Choices.