Aunt Alice

California’s aid-in-dying law is about giving peace to those who’d otherwise suffer

I couldn’t get through this week’s cover story without crying, and I’m certain many readers will have the same reaction. The heartbreaking piece by one of my News & Review colleagues, Raheem F. Hosseini, is about his mother’s attempts to get through the bureaucratic red tape surrounding California’s aid-in-dying law, the End of Life Option Act.

That legislation was intended to alleviate the suffering of terminally ill patients who want to end their lives on their own terms. It allows physicians to prescribe to qualified patients—those with less than six months to live who are deemed mentally competent—a lethal dose of medication. But medical professionals aren’t mandated to participate, and there’s an issue with buy-in. Without it, people who would otherwise ingest medication and pass away peacefully will end up dying in anguish.

We don’t like to talk about it, or even think about it, but death is a certainty for all of us. For those facing that inevitability sooner, the aid-in-dying law is a comforting prospect. A report released this week by the state Department of Public Health reveals that 111 Californians had ended their lives through the End of Life Option Act between June 9, 2016, when the law went into effect, and Dec. 31.

It’s disappointing that Butte County apparently is letting down the residents who would choose a medically assisted death (not a single one of our major medical providers is a participant). My hope is that, as time passes, qualified local health practitioners will get on board.

Perhaps stories like Raheem’s will aid in that effort. It certainly struck a chord with me. Not only is the piece beautifully written, but it also reminds me of the passing of a loved one who succumbed to a rare gastrointestinal cancer 11 years ago at the age of 53.

Aunt Alice was the picture of health prior to her diagnosis: She worked out religiously, didn’t drink and ate healthfully. On top of that, she was one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever known. My aunt never forgot a family member or friend’s birthday, anniversary or graduation—a card would invariably show up days in advance.

It made no sense that she would wind up with cancer.

In the context of that terrible diagnosis, my aunt’s otherwise healthy body held on for a long time. The last time I saw her, I couldn’t fathom how she was sustaining life—her tiny body, wracked by the disease, was a shell. I barely recognized her, but did my best to keep it together.

I’ll never forget her asking me if I’d brought my boyfriend with me. She’d heard about Matt, my now-husband, and desperately wanted to meet the guy she hoped would be “the one.” Matt and I had been dating for only a few months, not nearly long enough to ask him to accompany me on a visit with a terminally ill relative. “Next time,” I told her before I left, though that pledge rang hollow considering the circumstances.

Aunt Alice passed away as my brother and I raced south on Highway 99 to her home in the Central Valley to try to say a last goodbye. Over the weeks that followed, my mother shared with me some of the details about her final days and hours that I will never forget. It was a brutal exit for her and those who loved her.

I don’t know if my aunt would have opted for a medically assisted death, but I wish she’d had the option.