Nancy Niedzielski worked tirelessly in Washington to advocate for the state’s Death with Dignity Act which voters approved in 2008. Her efforts were documented in the groundbreaking documentary How to Die in Oregon which was honored at film festivals all over the world and was recently nominated for an Emmy Award. Documentary award winners will be announced October 1, 2012.
When it was announced the documentary How To Die In Oregon was nominated for an Emmy, memories of the Washington campaign to pass the second Death with Dignity law, flooded my mind. The documentary placed a bookmark at a historical event for people around the world to see. And see it they did with an outpouring of love and support for those who dedicate time and money to ensure terminally-ill patients have a choice in their dying pain. Film Festivals around the world honored the documentary with awards, which for my way of thinking, honors the patients. My husband suffered in his dying, and the Oregon Death With Dignity Act couldn’t help him.
I first met filmmaker Peter Richardson during our Washington state campaign. He heard about my husband who had the opposite experience of others featured in his documentary. At 55, Randy was diagnosed with brain cancer that metastasized to his spinal cord and nervous system. Randy had some decent years but his death was long, ugly, and painful. When Randy entered hospice, only Oregon had a Death with Dignity Law. He was desperately envious of Oregon’s law. Being a member of a Brain Tumor Support Group, we knew the kind of death he would endure as we watched those we loved die horribly.
With no option but to suffer an agonizing death, Randy begged me to change what he felt was a cruel system under which the government insisted terminally-ill patients had to suffer and couldn’t seek assistance in dying. Randy asked me to promise I would change the law in Washington so terminally-ill patients had a choice—one he didn’t get. I promised him. But how? You promise anything to someone you adore as they lay dying.
After Randy’s death, I agonized about that promise. I searched for a way to fulfill it. In that search I came across the non-profit organization, Compassion and Choices of Washington. I was led down a campaign path that provided the opportunity to keep my promise to Randy. It became my full time commitment. I was willing to do anything and everything to keep that final promise to Randy.
On that journey, I marveled that just as it takes a village to raise children well, so also does it take a village to pass a Death with Dignity Law. I met hundreds of donors dedicating money so terminally-ill patients would have a choice in their dying pain. It takes a lot of money to educate the public about a new law and counteract lies perpetuated by the opposition. I met hundreds of volunteers committing countless hours in memory of a loved one or ones who just felt this was the compassionate thing to do for those who share your village. I met thousands of voters who understood this law doesn’t force any belief on anyone. No one has to use it. It just offers another medical option.
When I first watched How To Die In Oregon with Peter Richardson in the safety net of my home, my reaction was one of both sorrow and anger. I felt sorrow for those in the film who, like me, grieved a loved one. Alongside that sorrow sat anger that Randy suffered in a way the patients in the film didn’t. The peace and comfort they experienced in the final days leading up to death because they had a choice was something Randy craved and begged to have. I mentioned the anger to a friend who responded, “That’s why you worked so hard to pass the Death with Dignity law. Now, no terminally-ill patient in Washington will have to suffer like Randy did.” My anger melted away as a promise kept was recognized.
At a showing of the film, I met a man whose wife used the Washington Law. He expressed gratitude for her peaceful death. How odd it was to hear the words gratitude and death together. He said the law was a legacy to Randy. Knowing that because of the law, his wife’s death left him with less haunting memories than Randy’s did for me, I felt comforted. Randy was kind, gentle and caring. He would be the first to say if his suffering in dying meant others had a choice he didn’t get, then it was worth it. None of us know for certain what our death will be like or whether we’d want to use this end-of-life option. One thing I do know for certain: I want a choice.
As I write this, I’m on a plane to the funeral of Randy’s sister-in-law. She died too young of cancer. Fortunately her suffering was managed by hospice; for that I’m grateful. Randy wasn’t as fortunate. Not all dying pain is manageable. There is no guarantee any of us will leave this world peacefully, free of pain, surrounded by loved ones. This law brings terminally-ill patients closer to that possibility.
The intimacy with which the documentary shows why patients choose this option is told better than I ever can. I will always be grateful to filmmaker Peter Richardson and editor Greg Snider for their respectful approach. They educated the world on why advances in medicine that keep people alive longer need to be balanced with the choice to end one’s pain in dying. The Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts change the deaths of terminally-ill patients and in so doing change their lives and the lives of their families for the good. I will always be grateful for being able to meet so many wonderful people who work tirelessly for others so they have this choice. They have changed my life for the good.
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