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‘Death with dignity’: Make it possible in Massachusetts

In her letter to the editor, Joyce Scheffey of Great Barrington addresses the dilemma of end-of-life decisions and urges passage of legislation.

To The Editor:

For many years I have been a believer in reasonable legislation to afford “Death With Dignity” to those who suffer with an incurable disease and are near the end of life.

With tremendous and wonderful help from our local Hospice my husband, Lew Scheffey, was able to die at home with family at his bedside and nearby.

This was sheer luck. I was then unaware of the various laws in place that could have resulted in denying him this timely and peaceful end of life.

As a nation, I feel we need help in overcoming the terror and denial of death. We need help in making the necessary decisions when our time comes. We need our government. We need legislation.

Recently, Massachusetts had a crack at it. H.1998. This Bill was inspired by an organization which I have recently joined called “Compassion and Choices,” once known as “The Hemlock Society.” Had H.1998 reached the House and Senate and passed it, it would have once again put Massachusetts in the forefront of groundbreaking legislation. (Read Mass Health and Gay Marriage.)

The sponsor was Rep. Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton). There were 15 co-sponsors. The bill was heard in the Public Health Committee but did not come up for a vote. Instead, it was sent to “study” with 200 other bills, which basically means it died in committee. (For information on the bill go to www.compassionandchoices.org)

In the current issue of their magazine, “Compassion & Choices,”, C&C offers a question-and-answer segment well worth reading.

One of the questions Katy Butler, award winning journalist and author (“Knocking At Heaven’s Door”) has asked is “how to avoid unwanted and unneeded medication at the end of life.”

This is her answer: ”As a nation (we need to) triple our spending on palliative and hospice care so everyone can get help with medical decision making early on. We need to ask Congress to support the ‘Better Care, Lower Cost Act,’ sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.”

She goes on to relate her experience as a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle (presumably writing an article) observing ICU decision making. While still at home, a longshoreman with incurable emphysema had been having visions of his dead wife and was ready and wishing to die. However, the next day, his niece, on discovering he was having trouble , called 911. He ended up in the ICU and “his death became a prolonged torture for everyone involved — his relatives, medical staff alike but, most importantly, himself.” Through this and other “heroic” intervention methods Katy thus became aware of our societal failure to allow death to happen. Technology and denial replace common sense and compassion.

This, from its website: “Compassion & Choices is the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization working to improve care and expand choice at the end of life. Leading the end-of-life choice movement for more than thirty years, we support, educate and advocate.”

Let’s ask our local legislators, Ben Downing and Smitty Pignatelli, for their views on and support for “End of Life” Legislation.

Forward Massachusetts! (as in Days of Yore)!

Joyce Scheffey

Great Barrington

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