Why California’s Governor Brown is Wrong About Physician-assisted Suicide For “Excruciating Pain”

When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the physician-assisted suicide law, he wrote

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” the governor wrote. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

Gov. Brown apparently believes the two myths promulgated by pro-assisted suicide organizations and most mainstream media about physician-assisted suicide: 1. Unbearable pain is routine in terminal illnesses and often cannot be relieved. 2. Unbearable pain is the reason people choose physician-assisted suicide.

As a former hospice, oncology, trauma, and critical care nurse, I made sure my patients had the best pain control possible after one unforgettable incident that happened shortly after I graduated from nursing school.

In 1969, I cared for a 32-year old woman I will call “Joan” who was dying from cancer. Joan looked emaciated with her skin  stretching over her bones and she was in terrible pain. Joan’s pain was so intense at times that she even talked about wanting us to kill her. At the time she was on a relatively small dose of Demerol given by an intramuscular shot every 4 hours as needed for pain.

I gave her the shot, wincing as I injected it into her shrunken buttock but the shot did nothing for her pain. I went to my head nurse who said to repeat the injection in four hours but  “Joan” continued to have intense pain.

I reported this to my head nurse and Joan’s doctor, suggesting that the dose be increased and/or given more often. The doctor told me no because he said he did not want her to “become addicted” to pain meds. I couldn’t believe my ears. I told him that she was imminently dying, even asking us about killing her to relieve the pain. Joan didn’t have to worry about addiction. I knew that from nursing school. The doctor still refused.

I went over his head to the chief of staff and the assistant director of nursing to plead for Joan. Instead, I was told that if I gave Joan her shot even 15 minutes earlier than the 4 hours, I would be fired.

I was frustrated to the point of tears but I knew there was one thing I could do.

I spent the last two days of Joan’s life with her as much as possible while working my shifts. After my shifts, I would sit with her for hours telling her stories, stroking her back, and doing whatever I could to distract her from the pain until she finally fell asleep. I would not abandon her.

After Joan died, I decided to learn everything I could about pain relief so that I could rebut a future ignorant doctor and help my patients. And I did. I studied every article on pain relief that I could find and talked to experts in the field as well as experienced colleagues. I’m still doing this 46 years later.

I never again had a patient die with severe pain.

For example and 20 years later, I started working on an oncology (cancer) floor in honor of my mother who I cared for until she died  from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. As I promised my father, I made sure she was comfortable and Mom was even alert and in good spirits at the end.

I loved my new job in oncology but one day I came in hearing a woman down the hall screaming. That was unusual on our floor. It turned out that this woman I’ll call “Kim” was also a 32-year old woman with terminal cancer.

Kim’s pain had been under good control at home with long-acting morphine pills supplemented with fast acting morphine pills to relieve breakthrough pain. However, her family mistakenly thought that since her pain was relieved, she did not need to take her long-acting pills. Kim agreed but the result over a short time was terrible pain unrelieved by slowly increasing a morphine drip.

Working with the doctor, I came up with an overnight game plan to aggressively and quickly treat her extreme pain. The doctor agreed after I promised to monitor Kim closely so that her breathing would not be compromised.

By the next morning, Kim’s pain was finally under control and shortly afterward, she was able to be discharged home on her usual medication regimen.

Governor Brown, using pain as a reason to enlist doctors and nurses to help patients kill themselves is perverse not only because pain can be controlled, especially with the medical advances we have today but also because Oregon’s own report shows that physician-assisted suicide victims in Oregon cited “Losing autonomy”, “Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable”, “Loss of dignity”,“ Losing control of bodily functions” and “Burden on family, friends/caregivers” before “Inadequate pain control or concern about it” as the top end of life concerns.

Personally, I will continue to fight for good pain and symptom control for all patients as passionately as I oppose physician-assisted suicide.