I am a Family Nurse Practitioner in Billings, Montana. I have had a lot of experience with people at the end of life in both professionally and personally. There are few things in life more private or personal than our own death. Montana residents do not need the government stepping in to approve or ban our healthcare decisions at this time of our life.
My father was Bob Baxter, the plaintiff in Baxter v. State of Montana. He was terminally ill with chronic lymphocytic leukemia when he and our family joined the lawsuit. He wanted to be able to decide, in accordance with his faith, family and physician, when he had endured enough suffering. He wanted the option to die peacefully at home. He continued the effort, even when he realized the decision was not going to come in time for him. In fact, he died the very day the judge ruled in his favor and was not conscious when the phone call came to notify us of the court’s decision.
My son was TJ Mutchler. In 2016, he was diagnosed with terminal metastatic pancreatic cancer at the age of 36 after being critically ill for two years. Treatment would have been merely palliative at the time. There was no hope for a cure. He enrolled with hospice and they tried very hard to control his symptoms, but toward the end, the medications were no longer effective. He had lost 125 pounds from the time of his initial diagnosis of pancreatitis. His pain became intolerable and he vomited throughout the day. He had a feeding tube he used to get medications and water into his body because he could not keep anything in his stomach. He was taking numerous anti-nausea medications and pain medication, but the disease was too advanced. He suffered terribly.
TJ gained so much peace of mind when he received his prescription, and ultimately the medications, knowing he could be in control at the end. Though he was in an immense amount of pain and discomfort, having the medication readily available provided a palliative effect. He received his aid-in-dying medication in November and did not take it until February 19, 2017. I got an extra two and half months with TJ because he was in control and he knew when things got bad enough he could take the medication. He didn’t feel the urgency to do it anymore.
During my son’s last two months, we celebrated his life with him. We threw what we called “TJ’s going away party” and invited friends and family to express their love to TJ while he was still here.
When the time finally came that his body was shutting down, he chose to ingest the aid-in-dying medications. Our family was able to gather together so he could say goodbye and we could be with him when he succumbed to the disease. It was peaceful for all of us. TJ experienced a gentle death which was our goal and indeed is the intent of medical aid in dying.
My father never dreamed that his own grandson would benefit from the decision in his lawsuit.
I’m in a unique position to share a story of how Montana decided to allow for this practice and the peace it provides to a person and their family. Every legislative session since the 2009 Baxter ruling, lawmakers have tried to overturn the decision. The fact that it could be reversed is very distressing to me.
The day after TJ died, I was notified that a state lawmaker had once again introduced a bill that would make physicians who prescribe aid-in-dying liable to be charged with homicide. What should have been a moment to grieve and take care of myself was brutally interrupted by the callous, unrelenting effort of some to end this compassionate option for Montanans. That same week, as I mourned the loss of my son, I testified to leave the court decision intact.
There is no evidence of abuse of this practice in Montana or in any other jurisdiction where medical aid in dying is authorized. This is a decision to be made by terminally ill, mentally capable adults. I ask that Montana’s state legislators continue to leave this personal, end-of-life option where it belongs, with terminally ill patients, in accordance with their faith and in consultation with their family and physicians, physicians who should not have the fear of potentially being charged with homicide looming over them. Physicians seeking to ease their terminally ill patients’ suffering should not have to question whether they are putting their career on the line or possibly going to jail.