Loved one chose death with dignity in Oregon
My stepfather, Dr. Melvin John Rowe III, died last month at the age of 73 with the assistance of the Death with Dignity Act in Medford, Ore.
To my family he was Grandpa Jack, and he was a treasure. We were with him the morning of his death. All of us, including Jack, sat around the breakfast table and talked about what was to come. We talked about how strange and surreal that moment was and we all expressed our love and respect for him and his decision.
Grandpa Jack was adamant that it was his right to choose his own fate in the face of a life-ending medical diagnosis. In Oregon, he had the legal right to end his own life with a prescription written by a physician, as permitted under Oregon's Death with Dignity law.
His decision was not made quickly or easily. He was diagnosed in September with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a bone marrow disorder that would kill him within six months. Over the past several years, he had been diagnosed with a litany of medical disorders, some life-threatening, some causing daily discomfort and pain. He struggled to concentrate and would lose focus. That caused him endless frustration. He was under hospice care fighting a losing battle.
Grandpa Jack was actually Dr. Rowe, a noted neurologist and neurophysiologist, author and lecturer who specialized in epilepsy research. Before computers were widespread, he bought an Apple II, learned Basic programming language and wrote programs for a microcomputing magazine.
The Grandpa Jack that I knew was incredibly intellectually curious. We enjoyed his company every winter when my parents came to stay with us for a couple of months. Every year, he would research a project to work on with our young son. One year he brought components for a crystal radio. Grandpa Jack and our son wired up our attic and then strung wire around the outside of the house and into the trees for better reception. Another year, he brought a clock-building kit with what seemed like millions of gears. They tinkered with it until all the parts functioned together smoothly.
Sadly, Grandpa Jack's body was just done. At any time, an infection might take over his body and take away his ability to control his fate. He had considered all that he would be missing, all that he would suffer, as well as what he would be putting us through, and made his choice.
The night before, Jack spent the evening opening capsules full of the medication he would be taking. The medicine was a sticky powder that did not easily release from the capsule. It was time-consuming and just plain strange. My mother did not help but was nearby, knowing that her time with Jack was ending.
The pharmacist said, during their consultation, that the medication had to be mixed with a room temperature liquid, but not dairy. Since he couldn't drink his favorite chocolate milk, Jack decided to mix it with peach juice. That morning he opened cans of peaches and drained the juice. The medication is bitter so something sweet would hopefully help.
Earlier in the morning, Jack took a couple of medications that would prevent him from vomiting the lethal medication. He had a window of time within which he needed to take the lethal dose or change his mind.
At the breakfast table, Grandpa Jack said, "Well, it's time."
He walked into his bedroom and got into bed. His favorite classical guitar music was playing. My mother and his son each held one of his hands. My brother and I sat nearby.
He sat on his bed and drank the mixture quickly, grimacing at the bitterness. He took it at about 10:14 a.m. We asked him questions and talked for about 2 or 3 minutes. He then became extremely drowsy and his words started slurring. We quickly moved to lie him down. He gave a gentle snore and his body stopped working by about 10:25 a.m.
It was that quick, apparently painless and certainly very peaceful.
He died exactly the way he had planned.
Please Ohio, let's continue this conversation about the right for a terminally ill person to choose death with dignity.
Lisa Vigil Schattinger is a nurse practitioner living in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She graduated from Crater High School in 1985 and from Linfield College in 1989. This opinion first appeared in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.