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As a doctor, I believe death should not be gut-wrenching

As a retired physician, I have seen birth, and I have seen death. The first is typically joyful, and the latter is invariably sad. But death need not be a gut-wrenching experience for an individual or his family.

A few years ago, my sons asked me to help them bring their dad home from the hospital to die. For nearly a year this good man had been struggling with pancreatic cancer. He fought to stay alive for much of that year, but now the end was near.

We brought him home, and with the help of hospice he spent his final days surrounded by people who cared deeply for him. He was heavily sedated much of the time in an effort to manage pain. Unfortunately he had become quite tolerant to the effects of opioids after months of treatment. The hospice nurses did what they could, but as the days passed, he spent his time either in pain or mentally absent.

A friend who had come to say “goodbye” reminded me that we consider euthanasia of animals who are sick and suffering and it was a pity that we couldn’t extend this kindness to our fellow humans when they were dying. What made this more difficult was my ex-husband’s stated plan to end his own life before he reached this point. Unfortunately, in the last few weeks, he became rapidly incapacitated and was unable to carry out this plan. He wanted it to be over, but medical assistance in dying was not a legal option in the state of New York where he lived and died.

And it is not legal in New Mexico, either.

Perhaps you believe that it is up to God to determine the exact moment of death. That is your choice. But that is not my choice. When God has determined that my end is fast-approaching and when I have received all that life offers, including the final lessons and the pain, I think I will be ready to move on.

Medical assistance in dying legislation allows certain terminally ill patients to legally and voluntarily hasten their deaths with the assistance of medical professionals and drugs. One-fifth of the states in our country allow this as a result of legislative action, judicial ruling or ballot initiative. Seven in 10 Americans believe medical aid in dying is a right they should have, according to the website.

In Oregon, one of the first states to pass legislation to legalize this option, it is not widely used. Many people request assistance but do not use the drugs. In 2019 only 188 followed through to end their lives in this way. However, many drew comfort in knowing that this was an option.

On Jan. 13, 2014, the New Mexico 2nd Judicial District ruled that physician-assisted dying is a right under the state Constitution, in the case Morris v. Brandenburg; however, this continued to be challenged, and 2½ years later it was determined by the courts that the question should be determined by the state legislative and executive branches.

The day may come when you will opt for a death with dignity. Make sure this is a right you can pursue in our state by contacting your state legislators today. A change in policy doesn’t happen unless we demand the change.

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