Guest Columnist Ellen S. Dickinson: A History of Death With Dignity

Published: 01/15/2023 17:03:35

Modified: 01/15/2023 17:00:20

On December 27th, 2021 my cousin Peg died with dignity after a 7 year battle with ovarian cancer in New Mexico. Peg’s story shows the importance of having euthanasia laws in place.

Since she and I grew up and settled almost a continent apart (her in the west and I in the east), we had a long-distance relationship. Our grandmother started corresponding with us when she was eight! Peg eventually became a nurse/midwife and I became a biological researcher.

She was making plans for her second wedding when she received the results of her first scan. “I know what I have,” she wrote to me. “I have ascites.” Her diagnosis was end-stage ovarian cancer.

She immediately sought treatment – hours of surgical debulking followed by chemotherapy. When she went into remission at 6 months, she got married in her backyard in Albuquerque. So began her treatment cycle, recovery from side effects, remission. To keep her spirits up (and, I think, prolong her life), when she went into a new remission, she scheduled one activity a month. It could be a visit from an out-of-town family member or friend, a trip to Chicago to see the Hamilton play, or to Utah to visit an aging mother and a few siblings. They tried many different chemotherapy regimens and finally found a chemotherapy drug that kept the cancer at bay for almost two years! At this time she was joining a choir, going to Europe with her husband, renting a cabin in Upper Michigan and inviting family and friends to visit, having a reunion with her siblings at a park in Virginia, and making other visits. This drug drained her energy and required frequent naps. When I visited her, she drove us to her favorite restaurant in Santa Fe; She napped in the car while I explored Santa Fe for 2 hours! On another visit, she and I had breakfast at a lavender farm and went to a flamenco dance concert. She has never complained about the side effects of the chemo, although there have been many, including a painful anal fistula.

And in the summer of 2021, the drug stopped working. Around this time, assisted suicide legislation was passed in New Mexico. I think that’s when she started exploring “death with dignity.” There was nothing else they could do for her medically.

In September, she was so ill that she had to be hospitalized. Her six siblings gathered to say goodbye to her. However, to everyone’s surprise, she rallied and went to her grandson’s wedding in October. Plus, she hosted her family for Thanksgiving!

In mid-December, however, her scans revealed two grim prognosis: the cancer was about to perforate her bowels and was also so widespread around her carotid artery that she would soon suffer a stroke. As a nurse, she knew the horrible suffering that an intestinal perforation would bring, and she was also afraid of having a stroke (having seen several family members die from strokes, including our grandmother). So she wrote me a “It’s Time” email explaining her situation and what she hoped to do about it.

She had explored the assisted suicide option and after a rigorous review process involving multiple doctors including a psychiatrist, physical exams and specialists reading her scans and blood tests, she was told she was eligible. But the limitation for her was that she had to take the option immediately because the deadly drug could not be administered to her by anyone but herself – she had to take the cup and drink it unaided. But she said: “I know my body. I want another Christmas!” The appointed day was December 27th.

I spoke to her at Christmas 2021. She said she’s had so many good days since canceling that she wondered if she made the right decision, but today she had a terrible day and was glad she didn’t cancel.

On December 27th, her sister told me, she got up early, made coffee for everyone, unloaded the dishwasher, folded laundry – and thus sanctified simple household chores. Her husband and two sisters were with her as she drank the deadly brew. Her last words were, “That was the right decision.” She was 76 years old.

We were grateful that she was able to find a way out and limit the inevitable suffering. I will work very hard to get this important euthanasia law passed in Massachusetts.

Ellen S. Dickinson lives in Amherst.