Though I did not know so at the time, my involvement in the aid-in-dying movement began on July 13, 2011, when my husband TJ, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at just 28 years old. At the time of his diagnosis, the disease was not terminal. In fact, his medical team was confident that with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation the disease could be controlled, and TJ was willing to try any treatment option that was available to him.
About a year later, in 2012, TJ brought up the topic of medical aid in dying. He learned that Massachusetts’ aid-in-dying initiative was going to appear on the general election ballot. Had TJ not mentioned it to me, I would have not known about medical aid in dying. He made it clear that this legislation would be crucial to his care, if his cancer ever became terminal. I was immediately supportive.
After voting in support of the ballot initiative, we were disheartened to learn it did not pass. As a result, TJ decided to research other states that offered this end-of-life option. We learned that Vermont was the closest state with this compassionate option. He told me that if his disease ever became terminal, he wanted to move to Vermont to access medical aid in dying because he did not want to suffer, but we always remained hopeful it would never get to that point.
After four years of treatment, TJ’s prognosis changed. The disease metastasized and his liver was failing. We had run out of options for treatment. His prognosis was grim and we were devastated to learn there was not enough time left for us to move to Vermont to establish residency and a new healthcare team in order to access medical aid in dying. It was too late and the only option TJ had was to enroll in hospice.
Hospice was wonderful. The nurses were dedicated to making TJ as comfortable as possible but as his organs started to fail, his pain stopped responding to palliative care. Not even the highest dose of Dilaudid (which is four times stronger than morphine) could ease his pain. As a result, TJ endured weeks of unnecessary suffering and spent his final days in excruciating, unbearable pain. That’s not the way my husband wanted to die.
On October 11, 2015, TJ passed away in my arms and only at that moment was he finally at peace. He was in pain until he took his last breath.
TJ and I made every effort to enjoy the time we had left together but it was made nearly impossible due to the overwhelming anxiety we experienced in anticipation of what was to come. The absence of the option of medical aid in dying in Massachusetts robbed TJ of peace of mind. He feared the immense torture he would endure as his body shut down. He feared the trauma his parents, sisters, and I would suffer from watching him hopelessly suffer, without the ability to ease his pain.
If the legislation had been passed in Massachusetts, it would have provided TJ with a sense of relief knowing that he would not have to die the way it had been described that his cancer would take him. Had he had control over his end of life, TJ would have been able to pass peacefully on his own terms and have the opportunity to look around the room at the people he loved most and say I love you in his final moments.
TJ was my best friend, he always did right by everyone, he was extremely kind, and he and I shared in our Catholic faith. He believed, and I believe, that God does not want anyone to suffer needlessly. Suffering is unavoidably a part of life, but if there’s a way to relieve pain and suffering, that option should be afforded to individuals to make their own decision.
Before TJ’s passing, I made a promise to him that I would fight for the passage of medical aid-in-dying legislation in Massachusetts. I want other terminally ill individuals to be able to direct their care in the way TJ was unable to. I strongly urge my state’s lawmakers to support this option so that others don’t have to needlessly suffer the way my husband did.
I never imagined spending my time advocating for end-of-life care. After witnessing what TJ had to go through, I’m committed to the promise I made to do everything in my power to ensure that others don’t needlessly suffer.