Vox: I’m a Doctor. Here’s What it’s like Helping Terminally Ill Patients End Their Lives

Aid in dying has been legal in California for a year now. Many of my patients have been waiting for this.
September 26, 2017

This article originally appeared on www.vox.com

As usual, I held the door handle and took a deep breath so I could enter the room fully present. This time, a person wringing his hands locked his eyes on mine anxiously. “I am hoping you can help me,” he puffed. “My other doctor just left me out to dry.”

I sat down, rolled my chair closer to him with a smile, and shook hands to introduce myself. He leaned forward to speak, stopping every few words to rasp, “My doctor told me I was dying and there was nothing left to do to help my breathing. When I asked if he would help me die, he clammed up and told me he would refer me to hospice, but as far as he was concerned, there was no other option.”

He was clearly so distressed. He was referring to California’s now year-old End of Life Option law, which legalizes medical aid in dying.

I did not yet have his current health records. In his profound distress, my new patient had transferred medical systems to find a primary care physician who could offer him a chance to end his life the way he wanted. I had no idea whether he fell under California’s strict criteria for medical aid in dying.

For now, the best care was to clarify his concern and reassure him that I would support him. I am a family medicine physician — from birth to death and everything in between. Our office days may include newborn care, lifestyle approaches to diabetes, managing hypertension medications, diagnosing an undifferentiated set of symptoms, or sports physicals. In addition, we have crucial conversations about health options including through life transitions.

I turned to the patient and responded, “I’m glad you’re here. I want to reassure you that I am participating in the aid-in-dying law. We can talk about how it works and if it is right for you among all the options for end-of-life care. I can stay your doctor no matter what.” I paused for a minute, then continued: “Is it okay if we talk a little more about your concerns?”

He tried to take a deep breath and started to cough. “You see,” he was finally able to say, “I am a Vietnam vet, and I saw combat and death up close. I am not afraid of death. I have looked it in the eye.” He looked up again and suddenly dissolved into tears. “I’m so sorry; I am just so relieved you are here. I just…” and he sobbed for a few minutes. I held his hand.

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