Volunteer Spotlight: Jerome Medalie

May 8, 2014

The anguish of helplessly watching his father suffer from terminal stomach cancer alerted Jerome Medalie to the dire state of end-of-life healthcare — in 1969. “I was appalled at the pain he was going through,” says Jerome, a Yale University and Harvard Law graduate, and World War II vet. “He knew I had a gun because as a federal prosecutor I used to carry one. He begged me to kill him. I asked the doctor, ‘Why can’t you give him more morphine? Why does he have to suffer?’ The doctor said he couldn’t, because it might kill him. I said, ‘He’s terminally ill! If it kills him, it kills him. But it will relieve his suffering.’”

It took confronting the doctor with Jerome’s father’s wishes to get the morphine dosage increased. Jerome’s father died the same night. “That started me,” says Jerome about his dedication to improving the way people die. Twenty years later, he went through nearly the same ordeal when his mother was dying of pancreatic cancer.

As a practicing attorney, Jerome researched the laws surrounding patient rights and physician liability at the end of life. He learned about the “double effect,” a principle that permits causing death when it’s an unavoidable result of the intention to relieve suffering. He became involved in a pivotal Massachusetts case in 1976, Belchertown State School v. Saikewicz, which established in the “patient choice” context the concept of “substituted judgment.” This allows a judge, in the case of an incompetent patient with an incurable illness, to hear testimony and take evidence in order to determine whether the patient, if competent, would have chosen invasive medical treatment which might provide temporary relief or wait for a natural death. The court ruled that Saikewcz did not have to undergo chemotherapy. The decision in this case ultimately decided the widely known and long-litigated Terri Schiavo case. And Jerome kept going.

In 2000 he founded The Jerome Medalie End-of-Life Issues Study Group at Yale, which hosts monthly lectures and panel discussions on “various aspects of the multitudinous issues around the end of life.” He also began advising Compassion & Choices on various initiatives, including advancing the claim of a constitutional right under state law of a competent, terminally ill patient to opt for aid in dying, expedite the dying process and enable a physician to legally assist in that dying process, which claim succeeded in the 2009 case of Baxter v. Montana.

Jerome became increasingly involved with C&C Massachusetts after inviting Campaign Manager Marie Manis to pass out literature at a lecture he was giving to his retirement community. Not only did he attend the Public Health Committee Hearing on his state’s death-with-dignity bill last December, “I hired a bus and brought 20 people!” He also keeps busy speaking at events, writing op-eds and developing helpful solutions, such as a proposal to rank hospitals based on how they perform in end-of-life care.

Jerome feels optimistic about the movement he has been part of for so many years. “I’m delighted with what Compassion & Choices has been doing,” he says. “You’re pushing my issue!”

We can always use more help: Get involved in your state!

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