On April 30, the Vermont General Assembly wisely rejected numerous attempts to repeal the state's death-with-dignity law that enabled Maggie Lake to peacefully end her dying process from terminal cancer. Called Patient Choice and Control at End of Life (Act 39), this law gave Maggie the option to get a doctor's prescription for medication that she consumed so she could gently die in her sleep at home, with family including sister, Katy Lesser, at her bedside.
Today, Katy is grateful that her testimony about Maggie, a family nurse practitioner and artist, may have played a role in the Legislature's decision. Below is an excerpt of Katy's testimony that was recorded before the Legislature voted, explaining how Act 39 allowed Maggie to end her suffering after she endured agonizing treatments that failed to cure the cancer in her lymph nodes.
"She did pretty much everything she could to be well: a stem-cell transplant and chemotherapy…another stem-cell transplant, chemo and radiation. She reached a point where she was in constant pain, and she was having a lot of trouble breathing. And so the option to end it was something she wanted, something she chose. I think she felt empowered, and I think she felt relieved, and calmer, and glad that she had the option."
As Maggie's experience demonstrates, two years after Vermont became the first state to authorize death with dignity via legislative action, Act 39 is working exactly as its primary advocates, Patient Choices Vermont and Compassion & Choices, predicted it would. It is giving mentally competent, terminally ill adults the option to die peacefully if their end-of-life suffering becomes unbearable. This law provides criminal, civil and professional protections for physicians who prescribe aid-in-dying medication for terminally ill adults who request it. Participation in the law by anyone, including patients, physicians and pharmacists, is entirely voluntary.
While federal and state laws protect the identity of patients so they can maintain their privacy unless they volunteer to go public, we now have two years' experience with the Vermont law. Physicians have written prescriptions for seven terminally ill, mentally competent adults who qualified for aid-in-dying medication under the law during the last two years, according to the Vermont Department of Health. Two of these people died from their terminal illnesses before they even got their medication. Five terminally ill people received the medication and three have ingested it, including Maggie Lake.
While few people actually secure and consume the prescribed medication as Maggie Lake did, many who face a terminal prognosis consider the option and are reassured that it exists. Some complete the eligibility process and achieve peace and comfort simply having the medication in their possession, but never actually take it. For them, having this option brings tremendous relief and dramatically improves the quality of life's final days.
I am gratified that both the Vermont Senate and House of Representatives defended the law from efforts to repeal it during this legislative session. Our elected leaders have wisely affirmed this legal right and end-of-life medical option for all terminally ill, competent, adult Vermonters.
We all deserve tranquility, choice and peace of mind at the end of our lives, and I will continue working to make these things available to all Vermonters.
Linda Waite-Simpson of Essex Junction is a former Vermont state representative who currently serves as the Vermont state director for Compassion & Choices. This article was first published by the Burlington Free Press on May 21, 2015.