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Dying woman’s last wish: Beachtime for Gi-gi

Dying woman's last-wish coastal trip is a parting gift to her canine companion
Victoria Worthington shares a moment Wednesday with her dog Gi-gi at Orchards Assisted Living in Medford. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

With help from a social worker and a donation from a Brookings hotel, a Medford woman’s final wish is coming true.

Hospice patient Victoria Worthington will load up her closest friend’s Toyota Prius Thursday with a wheelchair and five boxes of medication, oxygen bottles and other supplies, and they’ll make their way to the Oregon Coast, where an oceanfront room awaits them.

As much as she’s looking forward to a day of exploring life beyond her routine of checkups in her assisted living home and trips to shopping centers down the street, Worthington says her final wish is as much for her emotional support dog, Gi-gi, as it is for her.

“It means the world because she’s my world,” Worthington said.

‘Letting go with love’

During an hourlong interview that touched on a wide range of emotions — from gratitude for the efforts of Asante hospice staff to plans for ending her life by taking advantage of Oregon’s Death With Dignity law through medically assisted suicide — Gi-gi rushed to kiss away Worthington’s tears whenever she’d start to cry.

“You’ll notice there’s no tissue in this apartment,” Asante hospice nurse Molly Deem joked.

The sandy-colored terrier mix that’s served Worthington for nine years has never breathed mountain air from a car window or scampered on the beach because of her master’s terminal overlapping heart and lung conditions that hamper Worthington’s mobility.

Worthington beams at the thought of Gi-gi experiencing new sights, new sounds, chasing seagulls and “that brand new smell.”

It’ll also be a glimpse of Gi-gi’s life without her. The trip with her close friend Kat Finwall will serve as a “warm handoff” of the dog Worthington raised from a puppy and trained herself so she can take the next steps in her end-of-life journey.

“I’m giving her what she needs and letting go with love,” Worthington said.

Death on her terms

Worthington said she’s speaking publicly about her plans for a medically assisted suicide because she wants to break the stigma of death.

“Society has been scared of death for too long,” Worthington said. “The barrier needs to be broken down.”

Under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, adult patients who meet specific qualifications — such as diagnosis with a terminal illness likely to kill them within six months and the ability to make and communicate their own health care decisions — may be prescribed lethal doses of medications that patients can take to end their lives.

In 2021, medically assisted suicide made up a small fraction of Oregon deaths. The Oregon Health Authority estimates Death With Dignity accounted for 0.59% of the state’s deaths last year. Some 3,280 Oregonians have obtained prescriptions for medications under Death With Dignity since 1997, and 2,159 have died from ingesting the drugs.

Twelve Jackson County residents in 2021 ended their lives by ingesting lethal doses of medication under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, and since 1997, 145 Jackson County residents have died by medically assisted suicide.

Worthington is diagnosed with aortic and mitral valve stenosis, atrial tachycardia and congestive heart failure, although she’s had a prior stint on hospice for interstitial lung disease. In plain English, that means Worthington has two failing heart valves and an abnormal rapid rhythm in a heart that often doesn’t pump blood, as well. That’s combined with a condition causing progressive scarring of the lungs — for which Worthington was previously under hospice care.

A ‘friend to the end’

Less than four years ago, Worthington and the friend who committed to being by her side when she dies were complete strangers.

That changed rapidly when Worthington arrived at Celia’s House on hospice for her lung condition in 2019. Finwall was a bedside volunteer at the nonprofit facility converted from a historical mansion once owned by Harry & David co-founder Harry Holmes.

“I just don’t want anyone to die alone,” Finwall said.

Worthington said she’ll never forget how Finwall introduced herself when she arrived in her room at Celia’s House for the first time.

“She just comes in, plops down in a chair and says, ‘I’m Katherine. I’m going to be your friend to the end,’” Worthington said. “A woman of her word.”

Finwall said “from day one” of Worthington’s arrival in 2019, the two forged an understanding that she would provide Gi-gi’s next home.

“Victoria will call Gi-gi her ‘heart,’ and that’s going to be the hardest thing for her to let go of,” Finwall said.

The lung condition eventually improved to the point that Worthington had to leave Celia’s House, but Finwall kept in touch, kept visiting and kept advocating for her.

Making her wish come true

Although it’s Finwall who’ll load up half of her Toyota Prius with oxygen bottles and a rented wheelchair to accommodate Worthington’s last wish, Finwall gives credit to Asante hospice social worker Elizabeth Allred for making the trip happen.

Worthington was admitted to Asante’s hospice program in February after a trip to the emergency room resulted in a terminal diagnosis for her heart conditions. She’s expressed gratitude for the program that’s provided her with regular visits from bath assistants, nurses, a chaplain and a social worker.

“I’m finally clean and comfortable,” Worthington said. “That’s a gift in and of itself.”

Allred carefully considered Worthington’s specific needs — such as wheelchair accessibility and needs for a comfortable chair where Worthington can sleep upright — then cold-called hotels on the Oregon Coast. She got a yes from the Beachfront Inn in Brookings.

“They decided that they were going to donate a king oceanfront room for the night,” Allred said, “which was very generous.”

Allred said the effort to arrange a beach trip goes above and beyond her typical duties, but she tries to accommodate hospice patients’ last wishes. She said sometimes it’s a final visit with someone, sometimes it’s facilitating a hard conversation to give the patient peace.

“And sometimes it’s these big kind of things that really help people relax into their end-of-life process,” Allred said.

Her next steps

Allred, Finwall and Worthington’s registered nurse all described efforts to arrange a transfer back to Celia’s House. Finwall and Asante hope to move Worthington there potentially as soon as the beach trip is over Friday, but agreements were still pending as of Wednesday, so the timing is not yet certain.

One key condition at Celia’s House is that Gi-gi can visit but can’t come with her. Allred described the trip as Worthington’s “first opportunity to sit back” and watch Gi-gi bond with Finwall, beginning the process of “emotionally handing off.”

Finwall said Worthington needs to be at Celia’s House so she can have “beautiful memories at the end of life.”

“I also look at it as a way that she can focus on herself a little more,” Finwall said.

When Worthington returns to Celia’s House, she will take the next steps in her end-of-life journey.

Worthington has already obtained the medications in three bottles, which she keeps in a ceremonial box. She said she has a specific date in mind, but she’s keeping that between herself and Finwall.

Worthington takes 24 pills a day for her illnesses, but the primary medication to end her life looks like no other medication she’s ever received.

The 158 grams of powder marked “C DWD MS/A 1/10“ is in a black bottle. Alongside it in the box are two pill bottles containing doses of metoclopramide to relax and ondansetron for nausea, Worthington shared.

According to Deem, Worthington’s nurse, the lethal medication in medically assisted suicides under Death With Dignity varies by patient but can include a combination of valium, digoxin and morphine at high doses. The anti-nausea medication is typically administered first.

Worthington said she’s heard religious opponents of Oregon’s assisted suicide law describe spiritual consequences for going through with medically assisted suicide, but she said she has her own interpretation.

“The only thing it says is, ‘Do not destroy your temple,’” Worthington said. “It does not say don’t take medication that will help ease your suffering ... It does not say anything about assisted suicide.”

Even without that spiritual perspective, Worthington described fears of the afterlife only going so far.

“The fact is, I’m in hell,” Worthington said.

She described the pain in her lungs as being like cuts to the skin with a rusty knife. When her oxygen runs out and she can’t breathe, that exacerbates the pain.

“When I have the episodes that I get, I’m begging for mercy,” Worthington said.

She takes those 24 pills a day to function — many of them painkillers — along with oxygen and insulin.

Her quality of life is declining. Six months ago, she enjoyed arts and crafts such as tie-dying her clothes. These days sweeping the one-room apartment in her assisted living home and washing her dishes is difficult without more and more rest.

“My cardiologist told me that he’d be willing to give me five years if I let him crack my chest open, and I’m thinking, ‘Five more years of this?’ No. No,” Worthington said. “This is not living; this is existing.”

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.