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Letters to the Editor, July 19

Death with dignity

Ellen Waldman’s column, “Aging Happens,” provides excellent planning advice for us mature citizens.

As an aging and now retired physician, I occasionally consult, when asked, on terminally ill patients seeking access to a humane and dignified death according to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. This end-of-life option is seldom mentioned in her columns. Ellen and I have discussed this.

In a recent column she quotes a local veterinarian, Dr. Paula Backus, who provides hospice support for ill and aging pets in their owners’ homes. Dr. Backus also euthanizes pets in their homes when owners elect that option, presumably with injected medications.

During my years as a practicing internist, I cared for dying patients at home when possible, but otherwise in hospital or in a skilled nursing facility with hospice support. But as illnesses reached final stages, patients sometimes asked why they couldn’t be “put to sleep” like their ailing pets had been. Since 1998 they can, if they meet all the requirements of Oregon’s law, but not by injection. Important among these requirements are that the patient (I still use that term) is mentally competent and acting voluntarily. Also, one must be able to ingest prescribed lethal medication without assistance. Medication cannot be injected as in the Netherlands or Canada (yes, now in Canada). Pets cannot meet these requirements, so owners decide for them. Big difference. No one else can decide for a terminally ill person. Not in this country anyway.

Bill Southworth, M.D.


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