Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Vitally Important Conversation

Dear Richard,
Earlier this spring, Stephen Wallace of Benton City, Washington received a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. With an estimated month to live - and having watched his wife suffer in agonizing pain as cancer overtook her body years earlier - Stephen was adamant about his wish to use the state's new Death with Dignity law.

But when he talked to his doctors at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland about accessing the Death with Dignity law, he found none would support his decision.

Even though the hospital board had voted to allow its doctors to participate in the law, none would. Nor would any of the other area doctors that Stephen and his family desperately contacted in subsequent weeks.

Last Tuesday, Stephen did, in fact, die in excruciating pain. His cancer had spread to his kidneys, liver and lungs, making him unable to speak, stand or eat - precisely the fate he wished to avoid.

Stephen's story is far from uncommon.

Countless Americans discover far too late that their doctors will not honor their end-of-life wishes. They're left with the distressing need to find a new doctor to care for them, or subordinate their rights and wishes to the belief system of a doctor they have trusted for years.

Avoiding this hardship is the goal of Compassion & Choices' spring communications campaign. We call it,"Getting Your Health Care House in Order." We urge everyone to simply talk with their doctors aConversationbout personal values, wishes and questions about end-of-life care ... and find out where they stand.

Having that conversation now is the best way to avoid a disturbing surprise or difficult transition later. Unfortunately, your doctor is unlikely to broach this subject with you. It's almost always up to you, the patient.

You might wonder how to begin this conversation without seeming morbid. I humbly offer a few openers for your consideration:
  • "I just read about a study that found all that high technology at the end of life doesn't work and just causes suffering. Do you know I wouldn't want that?"
  • "My relative (or friend or acquaintance) had a terrible death, hooked up to tubes and machines. I think I'd just want to be home with my family. What do you think about a decision like that?"
  • "I love so much about my life - being active, loving my family. If none of that were possible anymore, I'd like to go out peacefully, without a lot of heroics. Does that fit with your medical philosophy?"
A Letter to My DoctorIf the conversation reveals a physician seriously out of sync with your values and beliefs, find another whom you feel you can trust to honor your wishes. As we often say, "When you're dying is no time to find out your core beliefs and your doctor's are incompatible."

If you're uncomfortable having this conversation with your doctor in person, broach the subject with a letter. You can download Compassion & Choices' free "Letter to My Doctor" here and mail it or hand-deliver it to your doctor at your next appointment.

Call us at Compassion & Choices (1-800-247-7421) if you'd like to report on how your conversation went. We'd love to hear from you.


Barbara Coombs Lee
President, Compassion & Choices

P.S. May we suggest forwarding this email to a friend or loved one? Spreading the word about the importance of talking to one's doctor about end-of-life choice is one of the most important steps that anyone can take to protect their rights and secure their peace of mind. You'll be doing someone a favor by sharing this message with them today.
Compassion & Choices is supported by contributions from people like you. Your gift today will help us provide consultation services free of charge to terminally ill clients and their families, educate physicians, lawmakers and the media, and advocate for improved patient care and expanded choice at the end of life.

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