Heather wanted end-of-life options. We collectively failed her.

March 15, 2018

The following op-ed appeared in the Delaware News Journal on March 15, 2018

On Saturday, I got the news that Heather Block, a beautiful 55-year-old woman, died.

She was a kind and compassionate person. She cared about others. She was a fighter.

Heather had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, a disease for which there is no cure, a disease that is known to result in a painful and ugly death. Her cancer eventually progressed into her brain and spinal fluid (leptomeningeal disease).

Despite her desire to live, she died. Cancer took her life.

Heather’s cancer had spread to her bone marrow, so she did not qualify for any clinical trials. She took chemotherapy drugs to slow the progression of the disease. She lived for quite some time knowing that at some point the chemotherapy drugs would stop working or her body would give out, and when that happened, she would die.

She accepted her fate and lived her remaining time to the fullest. She had one simple request: She wanted the peace of mind of knowing that she would die without suffering.

Heather wanted to be able to request prescription medication from her doctor that she could ingest if her suffering became unbearable that would allow her to die peacefully in her sleep. But to achieve this goal, she needed the Delaware Legislature to pass the End of Life Options Act to authorize the option of medical aid in dying for terminally ill adults like her.

The option of medical aid in dying was so important to Heather that she spent her precious remaining months working to pass the Delaware End of Life Options Act. She advocated before the Delaware Senate and House.

She met with the governor. She spoke to the media. Despite all of her efforts and the efforts of many others, the Legislature did not pass the law in time for Heather.

Instead, Heather spent the final months of her life unnecessarily worried. She suffered. She was not afraid of death; she was afraid of how she would die.

Unfortunately, Heather’s needless suffering illustrates the true cost of legislative inaction.

Her request for medical aid in dying would not have hurt anybody else. We have 40 combined years of data across seven jurisdictions that demonstrates this fact. The Delaware legislation, which was modeled after Oregon’s time-tested 20-year-old law, protects the dying patient from abuse or coercion.

The Delaware legislation includes strict eligibility requirements. The person must be terminally ill, mentally capable and have a prognosis of six months or less to live.

The bill includes dozens of regulatory requirements as well. Two doctors must confirm the prognosis. The dying person must make the request orally and in writing and be able to self-ingest the medication.

The law specifically mandates that coercing somebody to use medical aid in dying is a felony punishable by criminal prosecution. Fewer than 1 percent of people choose to use the law, although many more gain comfort from knowing it exists.

Quite simply, fear of coercion and abuse are completely unfounded.

Despite the overwhelming evidence and data that concludes that medical aid in dying is good public policy, we collectively failed to give Heather this option before she died. I urge the lawmakers of Delaware to put humanity before politics — and in honor of Heather’s memory — pass the Delaware End of Life Options Act before this session ends.

Not a single additional person will die from the passage of this law, but many will avoid unnecessary suffering. While it’s too late for Heather, other terminally ill Delaware residents need this option.

It’s time we put compassion back into our government and pass the Delaware End of Life Options Act.

Kim Callinan is the chief executive officer for Compassion & Choices, the largest national organization devoted exclusively to patient-driven, end-of-life care. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University.

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