Physician-Assisted Suicide Was Scandalous, Then Experimental, Now Almost Mainstream

Health and medicine explained.
Oct. 29 2012 7:00 AM

Massachusetts Vote May Change How the Nation Dies

Why it matters that Death With Dignity is poised to become the new norm.

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After Cody’s primary care physician calmed down, she discussed the implications of the finding and referred her to a local oncology surgeon, Dr. Katherine Morris—whom Cody and her family came to know as Dr. Kate.

Cody’s postings about her illness remained upbeat but realistic:

The good news was the location of the tumor made a resection of my liver possible. Your liver regenerates and within six weeks you have a new liver. I had the first surgery, which cut out about 60 percent of my liver. But there were complications and I ended up in the hospital for 50 days. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t feed myself. My daughter lives in Washington D.C. She visited for a week and I didn’t know she was there. And a year after the original surgery, the cancer came back, metastasized to the liver, lungs, and lymph nodes.

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When Cody and Dr. Kate met for the first time, the surgeon was 39 years old. During the preceding three years, she had established a vibrant solo private practice based in Portland, Ore., while also helping run a research and tumor banking program at a tertiary care center. She was happily married and highly satisfied with her professional life.

When I write medical stories, I routinely ask people to describe themselves and find that most physicians become flustered when asked this question. Although trained observers, doctors spend little time looking in a mirror or wryly considering their own appearance. They are no more or less narcissistic than the general public but rarely manage to put together a coherent description of themselves—let alone one that contains humor and modern cultural references. So I was delighted when Dr. Kate immediately responded: “I am hopeless at this, but will suggest, instead, a series of words to consider and words to avoid.” Among the words and phrases to eschew were “stout, stumpy, Rubenesque, jolly, looks like Austin Powers minus the chest hair.” Among those worthy of consideration are “a less anorexic Angelina Jolie, statuesque, willowy, serene, poised.” She continued: “I’m 5'4"; have dark, shoulder-length hair; kinda hazel eyes; and teeth I should have had straightened as a kid, but refused to have braces.” This was followed by the admission that, “I’ve a tendency to be willful!”

Dr. Kate grew up in a bucolic setting on the outskirts of Olympia, Wash., in a home that abounded with horses, cats, and dogs. One of her earliest lessons was that you don’t allow animals to suffer. She was raised as a Catholic and attended parochial school through eighth grade. She learned other lessons: People are responsible for themselves and their bodies, and autonomy is a cherished ethical principle to always be respected. Dr. Kate moved to Oregon to attend medical school and complete a surgical residency. She then traveled to New York City and Memorial Sloan-Kettering, where she did a surgical oncology fellowship focusing on cancers of the liver and pancreas. Portland, however, is not an easy city to leave, and she returned to establish a private practice and conduct clinical research. When Cody came to see Dr. Kate, she was one of a select group of surgeons specializing in the treatment of this particular kind of cancer.

Thanks to Cody’s case, Dr. Kate is now among the pantheon of a growing number of medical professionals who have been transformed by death with dignity. Perhaps it takes the dramatic actions of a flawed advocate like Dr. Jack Kevorkian to catalyze change that leads to the appearance of more reasonable and likable physician reformers. Physicians of this new generation do not seek out or necessarily welcome the role, but, having accepted it, they are irreversibly changed. Most are modest, highly intellectual, and intensely private professionals who are drawn to medicine because it offers a challenge and an opportunity to help relieve distress. Most are workaholics who accept the drudgery and frequent frustrations of the profession because it is occasionally interrupted by the incomparable pleasure that comes with vanquishing an illness, ameliorating suffering, and saving a life. Few of these physicians would ever have dreamed that their greatest accomplishment might entail helping patients to die. Not one of them would have imagined him- or herself becoming a death-with-dignity advocate.

These doctors defy the deeply ingrained taboo against death and they are soft-spoken combatants in this professional and cultural war. The media has briefly illuminated a few of them. Dr. Timothy Quill is a bioethicist and primary care physician who wrote a provocative New England Journal of Medicine article that is death with dignity’s literary equivalent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first-person essay resulted in a grand jury investigation (he faced the possibility of indictment for murder or manslaughter), and it led to his eventual role as a plaintiff in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case. Tim is this year’s president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

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