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Intensified Campaign to “Pass Medical Aid in Dying NOW” Unveils 1st of 50 Compelling Reasons Aimed at 2020 Passage

Florrie Burke, widow of award-winning NY filmmaker Barbara Hammer: Pass the bill so final moments of well-lived life aren't spent in agony; a new reason will be issued on each of the 49 remaining session days.

Compassion & Choices President and CEO Kim Callinan, joined by advocates and legislators, kicked off the intensified 2020 campaign with a Capitol news conference that revealed the first of the 50 Reasons to “Pass Medical Aid in Dying NOW.” Compassion & Choices will promote a powerful personal story on every legislative session day between now and June 2. Each story will highlight and illustrate a compelling reason for legislators to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act (A.2694/S.3947).

The first reason comes from New York City resident Florrie Burke, widow of award-winning filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who died from ovarian cancer last year, after 12 years of bravely enduring painful treatments, including 100 chemotherapy sessions, multiple surgeries, radiation, immunotherapy and the painful effects of this disease.

Florrie Burke speaks at Compassion & Choices' January 23 press conference at the New York State Capitol. Burke's wife, award-winning filmmaker Barbara Hammer, died from ovarian cancer last year, after 12 years of bravely enduring painful treatments, including 100 chemotherapy sessions, multiple surgeries, radiation, immunotherapy and the painful effects of this disease.

Florrie Burke speaks at Compassion & Choices’ January 23 press conference at the New York State Capitol. Burke’s wife, award-winning filmmaker Barbara Hammer, died from ovarian cancer last year, after 12 years of bravely enduring painful treatments, including 100 chemotherapy sessions, multiple surgeries, radiation, immunotherapy and the painful effects of this disease.

“It was traumatic for me to helplessly watch the love of my life die in prolonged distress because there was nothing I could do to relieve her suffering, despite the best hospice care available. In her final months, Barbara asked the Legislature to pass medical aid in dying. They didn’t and Barbara suffered at the end,” Burke said.

“My reason to pass medical aid in dying now? So that after more than 30 years of a vibrant life together, no one has to remember the final moments of a life well-lived as ones spent in agony. The Legislature has the power to prevent other New Yorkers from suffering now. They must pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act now.”

Hammer is not the only advocate for the Medical Aid in Dying Act to die with needless suffering. A new video including Hammer and four other terminally ill New Yorkers who have died advocating for this compassionate legislation since it was first introduced in 2015: Miguel Carrasquillo, Youssef Cohen and Jay Kallio died in 2016, and Bernadette Hoppe died in 2019. You can watch the video and read the script here.

“John and I were grateful for the excellent care he received from healthcare providers who delivered palliative care, and thorough hospice services,” said Albany resident Kyra Te Paske, whose 69-year-old husband, John Ostwald, died last October, after suffering through a horrendous year-long nightmare experience with stage 4 pancreatic cancer that rapidly metastasized to his lungs and liver, and finally his bones. “But the fact is, John did not respond well to medication and was often agitated and remained in great pain. He hallucinated and required restraint so he would not rip out his IV attached to the port in his chest. He told me: ‘I want the choice to die when I say so.'”

“For the past five years, New York lawmakers have ignored this medical aid-in-dying bill, while hundreds of New Yorkers have died needlessly suffering. In contrast, lawmakers in five other states and Washington, DC have acted, authorizing nearly identical legislation,” Callinan said. “The time has come for the New York legislature to send Governor Cuomo the bill he requested. Terminally ill New Yorkers should have the same peace of mind as their neighbors in Vermont and New Jersey.”

“These stories of terminally ill New Yorkers suffering needlessly at the end of life represent countless other New Yorkers whose loved ones died in agony, but don’t want to publicly share their story because it would force them to relive the trauma of it,” said Compassion & Choices Senior New York Campaign Director Corinne Carey. “Many more New Yorkers will die suffering needlessly unless the Legislature passes this compassionate law now.”

For the last week, Compassion & Choices has greeted legislators and visitors to the Legislative Office Building with a new educational display, featuring profiles of local and national leaders in the end-of-life care movement. They include Bishop Desmond Tutu and other faith leaders; nationally recognizable advocates, and most importantly, the stories of New Yorkers – those who are terminally ill and seeking medical aid in dying and those who died while urging Legislature to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act since its introduction in 2015. A copy of all the materials on the educational display can be seen here.

Since 2020 began, motorists approaching the State Capitol via I-787 North have seen this billboard:

Dan Diaz the husband of deceased California medical aid-in-dying advocate Brittany Maynard, who died peacefully from brain cancer in November 2014, thanks to Oregon’s medical aid in dying law, has been in Albany all week meeting with legislators. Diaz has spent a great deal of time over the last five years since Brittany’s death, far from the home they loved in Alamo, California, trying to ensure that others do not have to move to access medical aid in dying. Inspired by Brittany’s advocacy, the California legislature authorized medical aid in dying in 2015.

“I made a promise to Brittany just before she died that I would carry on her legacy by advocating for medical aid-in-dying laws nationwide, so no terminally ill person has to suffer needlessly at life’s inevitable end,” said Diaz. “When I personally explain to New York lawmakers and residents how this option enabled Brittany to peacefully  avoid the brutal symptoms  brain cancer was inflicting on her and die gently in her sleep, it opens their eyes and hearts to the need for this compassionate law.”

The most recent Quinnipiac University Poll on medical aid in dying showed New York voters support it more than 2-1 margin (63-29 percent). Virtually every demographic group measured in the survey – party affiliation, region, ethnicity, religion, gender, education level, age – supported aid in dying. A survey of New York physicians conducted by the widely respected Medscape/WebMD released last year showed that 56 percent of doctors support medical aid in dying. Their support increased to 67 percent when informed about the details and safeguards included in the legislation.

In addition, The New York Academy of Family Physicians, which represents more than 6,000 physicians and medical students across the state, strongly supports medical aid in dying, after having originally opposed it. As its President, Dr. Barbara Keber, recently wrote to Governor Cuomo: “Family physicians are blessed with the unique opportunity to care for patients and their families throughout the lifespan, quite literally from cradle to grave. Supporting the authorization of medical aid in dying is commensurate with the family physician’s desire to empower our patients  in their pursuit of wellness, their management of chronic disease, and in making the difficult decision to end suffering when confronted with terminal illness.”

Betty Rollin, Emmy Award-winning journalist former correspondent for NBC News, is also the author of 1985 bestseller, Last Wish, which deals with her mother Ida’s plea for help to die peacefully, and Betty’s action to fulfill her mother’s end-of-life wishes. Today, Betty’s husband faces a terminal cancer diagnosis and, if the New York State Legislature doesn’t act, he may face the same grim options her mother did more than 30 years ago.

“At the end, my mother said: ‘I’m not afraid to die, but I am afraid of this illness, what it’s doing to me… There’s never any real relief from it now. Nothing but nausea and pain and hopelessness.’ We were able to help her, and watching her die was like watching someone you love go over a prison wall. She was so grateful to escape – and we were so grateful she made it.,” Rollin said. “My husband and I are now 83 and 84 years old. He has stage 4 colon cancer. Our lives have been lucky and we are grateful. We may continue to be lucky and die in our sleep. But we’re not counting on that and should either of us get to a point where we want to die with a physician’s help, we can’t have that help. Nor can anyone else who happens to live in New York State. That must change this year.”

New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act has more than 50 legislative sponsors, including the chairs of both the Assembly and Senate Health Committees, and is supported by: New York State Academy of Family Physicians, League of Women Voters of New York State, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York State Public Health Association, Statewide Senior Action Council, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Harlem United, Latino Commission on AIDS, Latinos for Healthcare Equity, among many others.

Senator Diane Savino (D-Staten Island), prime Senate sponsor or the bill, said: “The right to peacefully end intolerable suffering at life’s inevitable end should be an option available to any mentally capable, terminally ill adult. New Yorkers should have the same option of medical aid in dying to avoid needless suffering at the end of their lives as our neighbors in New Jersey and Vermont. We must make this law a reality in New York in 2020. Too many New Yorkers are suffering at the end of life. This is New York and the status quo is unacceptable.”

Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), prime Assembly sponsor of the bill, said: “The horrific suffering I witnessed my sister endure at the end of her life is something that will remain with me every day for the rest of my life. Nobody should be forced to suffer like she did. That is why passing this bill this year is one of my highest priorities. I will partner with my legislative colleagues and the governor to deliver on behalf of the two-thirds of New Yorkers who support medical aid in dying. Now is the time to pass it.”