My late wife Christine Whaley received end-of-life treatment from a major Catholic healthcare provider. Christine was a vibrant, active woman who held down two jobs, created whimsical works of art and loved her family and her life in San Luis Obispo. In 2012, at the age of 36, her life was upended by a diagnosis of advanced melanoma (i.e., skin cancer).
She spent the next 5-½ years seeking a cure for her disease by throwing at it every treatment the medical community offered: immunotherapy, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, Gamma Knife surgery. She participated in a clinical trial and accelerated treatments, believing her age and strength could help find treatments for older and less healthy patients. Some of her treatments involved long and taxing trips to other cities and a surgical wound that didn’t heal required her to have a wound vac (vacuum-assisted closure) attached to her head for six months.
Unfortunately, her disease continued to progress and in 2016 advanced to her brain. By the spring of 2018, she had a baseball-sized inoperable tumor on the side of her head that had infiltrated her skull, her right ear, and her throat where it threatened to suffocate her. The prospect of dying like that terrified her. She had watched her grandparents’ suffering as they died of cancer.
Christine received a terminal prognosis of three to six months to live. It made her eligible to utilize California’s End of Life Option Act. She truly wanted to live, so she continued treatment while she started the process of accessing the law. I supported her decision to determine when she had suffered enough and end debilitating treatment when it became futile so she could gently die on her own terms.
When she requested a prescription for medical aid in dying medication from her physicians who had been treating her cancer, she discovered they wouldn’t be able to prescribe the medication. No other doctor affiliated with the hospital was allowed, either. Not even in their private offices outside the grounds of its facilities.
The reason? Medical aid in dying “is not in alignment with” with the religious medical system’s “Common Values” statement.
Christine was finally able to find a provider who would write the prescription at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 200 miles away from our home.
But most terminally ill people who try to utilize the End of Life Option Act are much older and weaker than Christine was (the median age was 74 years in 2018), so they may not have been able to overcome the obstacles she did to use the law and avoid intolerable suffering.
Christine exercised her right to have a peaceful death on August 25, 2018, at the age of 42. She died in our bed, at peace, in my arms, with her favorite playlist playing in the background, surrounded by her family.