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End of life bill gets another chance

In the end, it was as bad as Elizabeth Whitefield feared it would be.

The longtime Albuquerque family law judge and attorney had not gone gently into that good night as cancer took its final toll. It was painful. It was ugly. It was cruel. As comfortable as her husband, friends and hospice care had tried to make those last awful hours, it was just not enough.

“She was so brave, so bright,” Paul Thorne, her husband of nearly 33 years, said, fighting back tears. “She wanted to live so badly.”

But she had not wanted to die so badly.

She didn’t want anybody to die so badly.

In the last years before her death on the morning of Aug. 11, Whitefield had worked hard in support of the End of Life Options Act, which would allow terminally ill patients like her in New Mexico to seek help from a physician to end their own lives. Similar bills have become law in six states and Washington, D.C., beginning with Oregon in 1994.

Elizabeth Whitefield

Whitefield had been there in February 2017, frail yet ebullient, to speak on behalf of the bill at the state Legislature, pressing her hand to the tracheostomy tube in her neck to speak about how such a bill would allow her and others imminently facing death to die peacefully, with dignity, less pain and at the time of their choosing.

“I’m either going to asphyxiate and drown in my own fluids,” she had prophetically told a legislative committee. “Or I’m going to have extreme pain from the liver cancer.”

The bill was narrowly defeated on the Senate floor by a 22-20 vote.

She had been there in May at an Albuquerque City Council meeting to testify in support of a resolution to endorse medical aid in dying.

The resolution passed unanimously. Santa Fe and Las Cruces have also passed similar resolutions.

She had wanted to be there in August to speak in support of the measure at the annual meeting of the State Bar of New Mexico, fortifying her waning stamina with a blood transfusion and impatiently requesting information for her speech from Elizabeth Armijo, western regional campaign outreach manager for Compassion and Choices, a pro-end-of-life-options group Whitefield had worked with, making calls, making speeches, making her well-known presence useful to the cause.

“She called me five days before the speech, asking for her talking points,” Armijo said. “She had this sense of urgency. I was taking for granted that I still had four days to get those to her.”

Whitefield had taken nothing for granted. After 11 years of battling five major forms of cancers from breast to throat to liver, she knew her time was up.

She was too sick to make it to that State Bar speech. She died the next morning, her husband at her side all night long, valiantly suctioning out her tracheostomy tube and trying to calm her.

“It’s a horrific thing, sucking things out of your loved one’s throat as their eyes get so big and so scared,” he said. “It’s like they’re being waterboarded. We don’t want to waterboard terrorists, and yet we are forced to let our loved ones be waterboarded on their own fluids.”

Thorne, Armijo and anybody that knew Whitefield believe she would want to be there now at the ongoing legislative session to again speak in support of the End of Life Options Act. This time around they are known as House Bill 90 and Senate Bill 153, co-sponsored by Rep. Deborah Armstrong of Albuquerque and Sen. Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos, both Democrats.

The legislation is also now known as the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act.

The bill will go before the House Health and Human Services committee this morning. On Tuesday, advocates for the bill are expected to rally at the Roundhouse for end-of-life-options lobby day.

The legislation has been modified from the 2017 version of the bill to require authorization from two, instead of one, medical providers and a 48-hour waiting period.

The act also requires confirmation that the terminal person is of sound mind and has the legal capacity to make an informed decision. And the person must administer the lethal medications themselves.

Last week, a small group of health care professionals argued that the bill could lead to elderly or incapacitated patients being done away with – a “perfect crime,” one doctor said.

But Armijo said that 40 years of data and research has unearthed not a single incident in which the act was abused in such a manner.

Had the bill become law in time, Whitefield would have considered such an option only as a reasoned last resort, her husband said.

“That is how painful things had become,” he said.

Passing the bill that bears her name, he said, would be a final honor. In the end, it would have mattered to her.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.