Maya Distasio provided Compassion & Choices her story in November of 2019. On April 8, 2021 New Mexico made history with the passage of the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act. The law took effect on June 18, 2021.
Grandpa Vince was a lover of life. He was a teacher before he retired and, throughout his life, donated generously to nonprofits. Far into his 70s he continued to follow his passions of family, painting, cycling and cooking delicious food. It was on a bike ride in March of 2017, at age 77, that Grandpa Vince’s life dramatically changed. While cycling up a familiar hill he became so fatigued that he had to stop and lie on the side of the road. He knew something was seriously wrong.
On March 13, 2017, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. His oncologist told him that he would not make it to his 78th birthday in April. Doctors told him that they didn’t even know how he was still alive at that point with the counts that he was at. He was enrolled in hospice and went home. That same day, my grandfather told me about his diagnosis and said he felt like a “dying man grasping at straws.” I held him and told him I loved him.
In the week that followed, my family took turns spending the day with him. I saw him daily and his decline was dramatic. He went from being independent, exuberant and active to completely dependent and in constant pain. His pain was so excruciating that he described it, “like holes being drilled into your bones.” He would scream in pain at almost every movement — even the slightest movement. It was ear-shattering.
Grandpa Vince knew that he wanted to maintain his mental clarity so he didn’t want to be on heavy pain medications. His pain was severe, however, so he decided to give pain meds a try — unfortunately, it just made him feel even more ill and did not alleviate his pain. He also had told me before he was sick, that he wished terminally people could have a choice. That if he was ever given a terminal diagnosis, he wanted to die his way, not in a hospital bed because that wouldn’t be peaceful to him.
On the morning of March 28 he called me and told me he could not get out of bed. I told him I would rush over, help him and make him some breakfast. When I got there his doors were locked and he would not answer my calls. I panicked and called the police. An officer arrived in minutes, broke open the door and found my grandpa.
He was sitting on a shower chair in his tub filled with water, his body slumped against the wall, his wrists and ankles slit in the final throes of death. He left a note letting us know that he had chosen to no longer experience the suffering he felt, “I’m not getting better, I hate to do this to loved ones ... I want aid in dying but can’t get it in this state. Considered carbon monoxide, slicing artery or gun fire, all have bad consequences. Have to make a decision, too much pain ... No reason to be confused, I am so sorry. I love you all.”
He died alone and in pain. This is not how he should have died.
Grandpa Vince was such an incredible human being and cared so much for other people. He meant the absolute world to me. To have him die the way he did shattered my world. I’m angry that he had to die alone.
Grandpa Vince should have been able to spend his final moments surrounded by family, enjoying his favorite show (Seinfeld) while relaxing on his couch, smelling his favorite foods, comforted and loved. I share my story because no one should have to go through what he went through and no family should have to endure what we have endured. He maintained his mental clarity through the very end and knew that, unfortunately, there was not the peaceful option of medical aid in dying in his home state. We need medical aid in dying in New Mexico.