Board Member Spotlight: George Eighmey, JD

George Eighmey
George Eighmey

As a young boy back in Waterloo, IA, George Eighmey (pronounced Amy) helped care for his dying aunt. He remembers her begging for relief from her suffering, but not receiving it. He thought then it was cruel no one was able to comfort her. Later, while in high school, George worked part-time as an orderly in a nursing home where he saw excruciating pain and suffering go untreated. He was told “redemptive suffering” cleansed the soul and assured one entry to heaven. By then, he began to question why patients had to endure this treatment when there were means available to ease their condition and would allow them to die peacefully. His aunt’s death and the nursing home experience made an indelible impression on George that in many ways led him into his careers.

After a four year stint in the Air Force as a weather instructor, George enrolled in college using the GI Bill and graduated from the University of Illinois Schools of Administration and Law. As an attorney, he went on to practice in the areas of estate and family law, working for people facing day to day problems and end-of-life issues. His youthful memories formed his belief that people who planned for the future, including their inevitable demise, would be able to live life to its fullest. They’d know when their final days arrived they’d be prepared and so would their families.

George was licensed to practice before the Ninth and Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Oregon and Illinois Supreme Courts, the US Tax Court, and the US Federal Appeals Court before retiring. During his practice years in Illinois, he was president of the county bar association and managing partner of his first law firm. He also served on the Urbana, Illinois city council as an elected member. He was Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus and served on his church’s council allowing him to provide assistance to those in need.

In 1982, he made the decision to alter his life course after personally experiencing discrimination and witnessing it against others. He moved to Portland, OR where he continued to practice law, but also became more involved in human rights activities. He was elected to the board of a facility treating people suffering from AIDS in 1988 and became its chair in 1990. In that position, he heard about far too many young men ending their lives tragically when their disease deprived them of any quality of life. He remembered his earlier years back in Waterloo and was determined there had to be a better way to end one’s suffering when one’s death was imminent.

His opportunity to make a difference occurred in 1993 when he was appointed to the Oregon State House of Representatives, where he served from 1993-1999. During his term as an Oregon state representative he acted as vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Minority Whip, and senior Democrat leader where he was able to assist in the passage of the Death with Dignity Act, Medicinal Marijuana and Alternative Medicine laws. In 1997, during the successful second campaign to support Oregon’s right to die law, George became one of several statewide spokespeople for it. After the law went into effect, he was hired as Executive Director of Compassion & Choices of Oregon; an organization dedicated to providing nonjudgmental information on end-of-life options. He served in that position for 12 years until retiring in September, 2010. He continues to lecture on the subject of Oregon’s assisted death law throughout the US and most recently he testified in favor of the legislative passage of an Oregon type law in Vermont. As a result of his experience and recent activities, the board of Death with Dignity National Center invited him to become a member. He’s now serving as Death with Dignity National Center’s newest member and contributing to its efforts to pass Oregon type Death with Dignity laws in other states.

George is an advisory board member of Equity Foundation, the Bosco-Milligan Historic Preservation Foundation and co-author of a chapter in the book Compassion in Dying—Stories of Dignity and Choice. He’s received honors from several human rights and attorney organizations over his lifetime including from such diverse groups as Right to Pride, Oregon Gay and Lesbian Law Association, Our House of Portland, Legal Secretaries Association, and others. He and his life-partner, Peter, a land use lawyer, raised George’s two children, along with George’s former wife Marie. They sadly lost their son Greg in 2006, but are very much comforted by having their daughter Jasmine, a math and science teacher, and her husband Jeff, a sales executive, in their lives. In retirement, George remains active not only with his many causes, but enjoying outdoor activities and regular trips to NYC to enjoy Broadway plays.

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VT Death with Dignity: Dick Walters & George Eighmey

With Governor Shumlin’s signature on May 20, 2013, Vermont became the third state in the nation with a Death with Dignity law—the first one to be enacted through a legislative process and first of its kind on the east coast. Patient Choices Vermont, and their president Dick Walters diligently led the way the entire time. Over the years, many experts on Oregon’s law traveled to Vermont to help lawmakers and voters learn more about these important laws, and one of these experts was George Eighmey who serves on the Death with Dignity National Center board of directors and, for 12 years, helped terminally ill Oregonians navigate Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.

In this podcast, Dick Walters and George Eighmey chat with Melissa Barber from Death with Dignity National Center about the impact of Vermont’s new law allowing for Death with Dignity. Listen to the entire interview below.

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Vermont’s New Law: A Conversation with Dick Walters and George Eighmey

Dick Walters and George Eighmey
Dick Walters and George Eighmey

I’m proud to announce our new foray into the world of podcasts! In our very first one, we celebrated the new Vermont Death with Dignity law in an interview with two individuals who spanned the US to help Vermont become the first state to pass this law through legislation: Dick Walters and George Eighmey.

Dick Walters is the founder and president of Patient Choices Vermont—a local grassroots organization which has advocated for passage of this law since 2002. George Eighmey serves on the Death with Dignity National Center board of directors and previously helped terminally ill Oregonians navigate Oregon’s Death with Dignity law for 12 years.

Listen to the whole interview on our website. Below, are some highlights from my interview with Dick and George:

Melissa Barber: George, will you tell us a little about how you first got involved with the Death with Dignity movement?

George Eighmey: This movement really grew out of, surprisingly, the AIDS epidemic back in the early 80s. When I was fortunate to be asked to be the chair of an organization that helped people who were facing end of life because of AIDS epidemic and, I saw far too many young men end their lives tragically. There didn’t seem to be any way to give them a peaceful end.

MB: Dick, how has the conversation about Death with Dignity laws in Vermont changed over the years?

Dick Walters: At the beginning of the cycle, the question was a moral question, and that changed 180 degrees over the years to the word “choice.” So, it went from morals to, “do you want to have choice?” And that’s when a heck of a lot changed here regarding support among the legislators themselves.

MB: When do you think that shift happened?

DW: Really starting more effectively: just a couple of years ago.

MB: George, what have you observed when visiting Vermont over the years?

GE: What I saw was this involvement with this particular issue was phenomenal on both sides. They debated it, they discussed it, and the result was this particular issue now is out in the open, so to speak. It is out there where they can discuss it honestly and openly. I didn’t see any animosity or loud screaming or yelling at each other; it was very civil and very passionate. That to me was a good sign. That, first of all, the information we were able to provide from Oregon would really be able to address a lot of those concerns that people had—the fears that they had. And I hoped they did. And that’s what I saw over the years. The first couple of times there when I went around the state speaking, there was a lot of opposition, but then lately, I started seeing more and more support—especially from legislators—who I have an experience of saying are generally 10 to 15 years behind the public’s opinion. In this particular case, they came up very quickly.

MB: Perhaps both of you could tell us a bit more about what you found most challenging in your efforts in Vermont over the years.

DW: Just to stay with it, Melissa. This is a long process; it’s a long commitment; it doesn’t happen easily.

GE: I think in my case, it was the deja vu. Going into Vermont, it was as if I had been taken back 15 years in Oregon, because even though to me, the facts spoke for themselves in Oregon, they didn’t to certain groups in Vermont. And the same arguments, the same fears were expressed in Vermont. And so it was a challenge for me to say, “OK, this is Oregon 15 years ago. And I must recognize that and address those concerns as if we were addressing them for the first time.” Because, frankly, this was the first time Vermonters have addressed these concerns.

MB: And what does Vermont becoming the third state with a Death with Dignity law mean to each of you?

DW: The vast majority of people in Vermont want this basic human right, and the fact that we’re able to offer it to them now is huge. Also, I am convinced this will resonate regionally to other states, and perhaps nationally. The fact that we have become the first state to do this legislatively is important. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches—both approaches being legislative vs. referendum approach—neither one are easy.

GE: To have a state 3,000 miles away join us, it is no longer just a west coast phenomenon. And with a state like Vermont that is unique with so many firsts of its own, that they can now be a leader on the east coast to hopefully get other states to recognize that this law works.

Listen to the whole podcast and keep an eye out for future episodes on our podcast page.

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Pleasent Green Cemetery by George Wolf.wmv