Diane Rehm: My husband 'suffered through a needlessly agonizing, prolonged dying process'

Diane Rehm: My husband 'suffered through a needlessly agonizing, prolonged dying process'

Most people I know hope they will die in their sleep, peacefully and without pain. Unfortunately, when my husband of 54 years, John Rehm, died in 2014, that was not his experience.

Death brings great sorrow. But it also brings great clarity about what is important in life: respecting each person's right to make their own health care decisions about how they die, in consultation with their family, doctor and spiritual guide.

That's why I was scheduled to testify today before the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in support of the Richard E. Israel and Roger "Pip" Moyer End-of-Life Option Act. This legislation would have given terminally ill adults the option to obtain a doctor's prescription for medication they can decide to take to end unbearable suffering, so they can die peacefully in their sleep, at home, surrounded by their loved ones. Unfortunately, the sponsors of the bill withdrew it on Friday because they did not have enough votes to pass it; there are more than 70 new members of the legislature who are unfamiliar with the urgency of this issue. I, however, will continue to advocate passionately for legislation authorizing medical aid in dying in Maryland and other states nationwide.

I wish my husband had had this option to end his pain. Instead, he suffered through a needlessly agonizing, prolonged dying process in an assisted living facility in Chevy Chase.

In June 2014, when John was 83, he was placed under hospice care. His doctor had concluded that he had six months or less to live. That's when John told his physician that — because Parkinson's disease had so affected him that he could no longer use his hands, arms, or legs; because he could no longer stand, walk, eat, bathe or in any way care for himself on his own — he was now ready to end his prolonged dying process. He declared to me, his children,and his physician that he was "ready to die."

He believed that his doctor would help him.

When his physician explained that he was unable to carry out John's wishes in the state of Maryland, John became very angry. He said, "I feel betrayed."

Then his doctor explained that the only alternative John had, if he wished to end his suffering, was to stop eating, drinking fluids and taking medications. He asked his physician how long the dying process would last and was told it could be 10 days to two weeks.

The very next day, my husband began his journey to the end. He ceased drinking fluids, taking medications or eating any food whatsoever.

I sat by my husband's side as he slowly died. Watching John in those last 10 days of his life made me angry. Why did our laws infringe upon an individual's decision to peacefully die when dying was inevitable within a few months?

The tragic fact is our country, with the exception of six states and the District of Columbia, continues to deny individuals the option of medical aid in dying. This failure seems to me a violation of the most basic human right.

I am 80 years old and in good health. I love my life. But when my life is coming to its inevitable end, I will give thanks for all I have had, for all I have been given, and hope to go peacefully, with the help of a physician's prescription, as I now live in the District of Columbia, where the Death with Dignity Act became law just last month.

Each and every one of us should have the right to make this personal, private decision. The idea of suffering as being noble does not persuade me that extending life for the sake of someone else's religious beliefs or social philosophy is fair or even reasonable. Let each of us make our own decision.

That's why the Maryland State Medical Society dropped its opposition to the End-of-Life Option Act last fall and adopted a neutral position: It was a tacit acknowledgment that patients, not doctors, should make their own decisions about end-of-life care options.

In addition, according to a Feb. 2016 Purple Strategies poll, 65 percent of Maryland voters support medical aid in dying as an end-of-life care option, including 59 percent of African-Americans, 56 percent of Republicans, and 53 percent of Roman Catholics.

On behalf of my late husband, John, I urge the Maryland legislature to honor its constituents' wishes, pass the End-of-Life Option Act next year, and I urge Gov. Larry Hogan to sign it into law.

Diane Rehm hosted the NPR nationally syndicated "Diane Rehm Show" on WAMU-88.5FM in Washington, D.C. from 1979-2016. She now hosts a weekly podcast for WAMU. Diane is the author of four national best-selling autobiographical books, including her latest book, "On My Own" (Knopf, 2015).

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