My bright and sunny friend Doris was diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer in 2010. We had been best friends for more than 30 years, and over the intervening years, shared much as best friends do: the death of parents, the birth of children and grandchildren, and always, always, lots of laughs.
Despite vigilant self-care and punctilious lab work performed twice yearly because of her family history of ovarian cancer, less than six months after a perfectly normal cancer antigen blood test Doris was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Over the ensuing six months, Doris underwent major surgery, two courses of debilitating chemo and radiation.
Not long after recovering from the chemo, while on a walk Doris was struck by a drunk driver. Doris suffered critical, near fatal injuries. After nearly three months in the hospital, she returned home. Hers was now a life filled with even more pain, disability and exhaustion, but she soldiered on.
It was during this time, still wracked with excruciating pain from her traumatic injuries, that her cancer returned. Doris’s remarkable energy and strong will began to flag. She privately confessed to me that she was exhausted – she had witnessed her two sisters die of ovarian cancer – and knew she was destined to lose this battle. Encouraged by loved ones, however, she agreed to one more round of treatment.
After suffering through the treatments again, and beating the cancer back for a time, it came roaring back in a matter of three months. This time, Doris declared she would take no further treatment, but rather, she determined to enjoy whatever time she had left with family and friends, opting solely for palliative care.
Gradually, Doris became so weak and sick that she couldn’t keep up the facade of hope and strength any longer. She longed for it to be over and simply wanted to rest.
On a hot, early July morning, Doris swallowed all of the painkillers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers she had stockpiled for weeks. Leaving a letter of apology containing words of love and a pathetic plea for understanding, along with her copy of the advanced directive, she laid back down in her bed, to peacefully leave this world on her own terms.
Doris’ boyfriend arrived home and found her comatose, and near death. He had her rushed to the hospital and Doris was placed on life support immediately, despite her daughter Stacie’s producing the advanced directive stipulating that no life support was to be employed in keeping her mother alive.
That was the beginning of a six-day nightmare, during which Stacie repeatedly showed the legal document to the medical team and was repeatedly overridden in her demand to have the vent removed. No one at the hospital would listen. In the event of emergencies, even the best advance planning could be ignored.
I came to realize the doctor treating Doris was not familiar with her medical history. Fighting to control my mounting anger, I suggested that the doctor acquaint himself with Doris’s history, starting with the terminal cancer diagnosis, the failed chemo treatments, the horrible car accident, the surgeries, the repeated returns of the cancer, and finally, her failed attempt to end her life. I demanded that he phone his patient’s daughter and legal representative and review the advanced directive. Finally, Doris’ wishes would be honored – after days of unwanted life support, she was removed from the ventilator and allowed to die.
When a full range of options isn’t available, terminally ill people may still seek relief in whichever way they know. I vowed to Doris, in my heart, that I would take up the work of ensuring that no one ever had to endure what she had, in her simple wish to go to her final rest. I urge Minnesota lawmakers to listen to your constituents and grant terminally ill Minnesota residents the compassionate option of medical aid in dying.