Guest columnist Ellen S. Dickinson: A story of death with dignity

By ELLEN S. DICKINSON

Published: 01-19-2023 11:19 AM

On Dec. 27, 2021, my cousin Peg took death-with-dignity in New Mexico after a seven-year struggle with ovarian cancer. Peg’s story illustrates how important it is to have assisted dying legislation available.

Because she and I grew up and settled almost a continent apart (she in the West and I the East), we had a long-distance relationship. Our grandmother started us corresponding at age eight! Peg eventually became a nurse/midwife and I a biological researcher.

She was making plans for her second wedding when she got the results of her first scan. “I know what I have,” she wrote me. “I have ascites.” Her diagnosis was late-stage ovarian cancer.

She went into treatment immediately — an hourslong surgical “debulking” followed by chemotherapy. When she went into remission, after six months, she got married in her backyard in Albuquerque. Thus began her cycle of treatment, recovery from side effects, remission. To keep her spirits up (and, I think, prolong her life), when she went into a new remission, she would plan one activity per month. It could be a visit from an out-of-town family member or friend, a trip to Chicago to see the play “Hamilton,” to Utah to visit an aging mother and some siblings. They tried many different chemo treatments and finally found a chemo drug that kept the cancer at bay for almost two years!

At that time of remission, she joined a choir, went to Europe with her husband, rented a cabin in upper Michigan and invited family and friends to visit, had a reunion with her siblings in a park in Virginia, hosted more visits.

This drug sapped her energy and she had to take frequent naps. When I visited her, she drove us to her favorite restaurant in Santa Fe; she took a nap in the car while I explored Santa Fe for two hours! On another visit, she and I had breakfast at a lavender farm and went to a flamenco dancing concert. She never complained about the side effects of the chemo though there were many including a painful anal fistula.

And in the summer of 2021, the drug stopped working. About this time, assisted suicide legislation passed in New Mexico. I think she started exploring “death with dignity” at this time. There was nothing else medically they could do for her.

By September, she was so sick that she had to be hospitalized. Her six siblings gathered to tell her goodbye. However, to everyone’s surprise, she rallied and went to the wedding of her grandson in October. Furthermore, she hosted her family for Thanksgiving!

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In middle December, though, her scans showed two dire prognoses: the cancer was about to perforate her bowels and was also around her jugular to the point that she would soon have a stroke. Being a nurse, she knew the terrible suffering bowel perforation would bring, and she was also terrified of stroke (since she had watched several family members die of strokes, including our grandmother). So, she wrote me an “It’s Time” email explaining her situation and what she hoped to do about it.

She’d been exploring the assisted suicide option and after a stringent vetting process involving several doctors, including a psychiatrist, physical exams and specialists reading her scans and blood work, she was told she was eligible. But the caveat for her was that she needed to take the option right away, because the lethal drug could not be administered to her by anyone but herself — she needed to take the cup and drink it unassisted. But she said, “I know my body. I want another Christmas!” The appointed day was Dec. 27.

I talked to her on Christmas 2021. She said she had had so many good days since the scheduling that she wondered if she had made the right decision, but then today she was having a terrible day and was glad she had not canceled.

On Dec. 27, her sister reported to me, she got up early, made coffee for everyone, emptied the dishwasher, folded some laundry — thus sanctifying simple household tasks. Her husband and two sisters were with her when she drank the lethal concoction. Her last words were “This was the right decision.” She was 76 years old.

We were grateful that she was able to find a way out and limit to inevitable suffering. I will work very hard to get this important assisted dying legislation passed in Massachusetts.

Ellen S. Dickinson lives in Amherst. ]]>