Physician-assisted Suicide and the Palliative Care Physician

 

“SHOULD I HELP MY PATIENTS DIE?”

This is the title of an August 5 op-ed in the New York Times by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, an ICU and palliative medicine specialist in California who speaks and writes extensively on end of life care.

Dr. Zitter writes that she felt uncomfortable when first asked to help with a patient who wanted assisted suicide under the new California law and first polled 10 palliative care colleagues and found that they were also uncomfortable:

“It wasn’t necessarily that we disapproved, but we didn’t want to automatically become the go-to people on this very complex issue, either.”

Dr. Zitter then saw the patient, a man in his early 60s with a terminal illness in “no obvious (physical) distress” who felt abandoned by his sister and said he wanted to die because “I’m just sick of living” and “fed up with my lousy life.”

Even though the man met the legal criteria for assisted suicide, Dr. Zitter was relieved when he agreed to a 4 week course of antidepressant medication and follow up with his primary doctor. She later learned that the man died without assisted suicide 3 months later.

But despite escaping responsibility for a death in this case, Dr. Zitter admits:

“I want this (assisted suicide) option available to me and my family. I have seen much suffering around death. In my experience, most of the pain can be managed by expert care teams focusing on symptom management and family support. But not all. My mother is profoundly claustrophobic. I can imagine her terror if she were to develop Lou Gehrig’s disease, which progressively immobilizes patients while their cognitive faculties remain largely intact. For my mother, this would be a fate worse than death.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Zitter then decided to get help sorting out her support for assisted suicide and reservations about personally participating by contacting Dr. Lonnie Shavelson.

Dr. Zitter was impressed with Dr. Shavelson who allegedly performs a “time-consuming” assessment of the patient’s medical illness, mental and emotional state and family dynamics. Dr. Zitter was also impressed that he claims does not offer the lethal medications to most of the patients who request them because of concerns like coercion, that they would live longer than 6 months, or were experiencing severe depression.

Ironically, this is the same Dr. Shavelson I wrote about last year in my blog “Tolerating Evil”  after San Francisco’s Mercury News did an article on him on June 6, 2016.

As I wrote then:

“Dr. Lonnie Shavelson, 64 and a long-time supporter of assisted suicide, was an emergency room doctor for 29 year and then spend 7 years at an Oakland clinic for immigrants and refugees before taking a 2 year break.

His new assisted suicide business could be quite lucrative. Although Medicare will not pay for assisted suicide costs, Shavelson says he will charge $200 for an initial patient evaluation. If the patient is deemed qualified under California law, Shavelson said he would charge another $1800 for more visits, evaluations and legal forms.”

At that time, Dr. Shavelson defended his business by claiming that “the demand (for assisted suicide) is so high, that the only compassionate thing to do would be to bring it above ground and regulate it.”

Finally, Dr. Zitter called palliative care colleagues around the state and was heartened by the mostly positive responses to participating in the assisted suicide law. Dr. Meredith Heller, director of inpatient palliative services at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco told Dr. Zitter that “Surprisingly, the vast majority of cases here have gone smoothly.” (Emphasis added)

But rather than worrying about the cases that don’t go smoothly, Dr. Zitter’s concerns now are primarily about shaping policies and protocols “to account for the nuanced social, legal and ethical questions that will continue to arise” and training “the clinicians who are best qualified and most willing to do this work and then train them appropriately”. She is also concerned about the problems with reimbursement for such assisted suicide “services”, especially for the poor.

CONCLUSION

When I started working in hospice many years ago, I loved it. When palliative care was introduced for symptom control, I cheered it.

But as time wore on, I became alarmed and left when I saw the efforts to change the traditional hospice philosophy from never causing or hastening death to just “choice”.

Dr. Zitter seems to be a compassionate physician who really doesn’t want to be involved in physician-assisted suicide herself but ultimately feels compelled to support it because it is California law and because she might want assisted suicide for herself or her claustrophobic mother in some possible future scenario.

Dr. Zitter apparently tries to reassure herself-and thus the public-that assisted suicide can be “safe” by being rare and practiced by specially trained medical practitioners.

However, when the most basic medical  ethics principle of never killing  patients is eliminated, the foundation of medicine itself crumbles. Medical professionals become little more than highly trained technicians compelled to follow any new law or policy regardless of its detrimental impact on their patients, society or themselves.

In the end, assisted suicide cannot be regulated or carefully practiced into a “safe” medical procedure. The only way to thwart the expansion and consequences of assisted suicide is to prevent or end its legalization.

 

 

An Interview with an Assisted Suicide Doctor

It’s not often that we get a glimpse into the assisted suicide movement from the perspective of a medical professional who actually participates in terminating the lives of the terminally ill. Most seem to prefer anonymity.

But in a fascinating American Society of Clinical Oncology Post interview Examining the Impact of ‘Death With Dignity’ Legislation”, oncologist Charles D. Blanke MD, FACP, FASCO talked not only about his recent medical journal article “Usage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act” but also his surprises and concerns about the almost 20 year old Oregon law.

‘SURPRISING FINDINGS”

When Dr. Blanke was asked if anything had surprised him about the findings in his article, he replied

“I was a bit surprised by how rarely the prescribing or consulting physicians refer patients for a psychiatric consultation. According to our study, only 5% of patients received these referrals. In national surveys, many psychiatrists say that depression among terminally ill patients would disqualify them from participating in physician-aided death.

I was also surprised to learn how rarely a physician is present when the patient takes the medication—in only 17% of cases is that so. My guess is that physicians aren’t asking what their patients would prefer, because when I’ve asked my patients if they would like me to be present when they take the medication, 100% say “yes. (Emphasis added)

When asked about the spike in the numbers of lethal prescription in the last two years of his study,  Dr. Blanke replied that:

“There are several factors, including greater national awareness of this issue and the fact that there are several other states now with this legislation in place. Also, some of the medical societies that formerly opposed the law, such as the American Medical Association, have softened their stance and agreed to study whether they should be neutral on physician-assisted death.” (Emphasis added)

Note: Actually, the AMA has not officially changed it opposition to physician-assisted suicide although assisted suicide supporters hope for this. However, the American Society of Clinical Oncology has taken no official position on physician-assisted suicide, which is actual neutrality.

PALLIATIVE CARE, INFORMED CONSENT AND CONSCIENCE RIGHTS

Sadly, while Dr. Blanke says he is a big supporter of palliative care, he went on to also state:

“However, I strongly feel that there are some patients you simply cannot palliate. They have concerns about their quality of life and their ability to do the things they enjoy, they are suffering relentlessly, and they want to take back some control over their life. Physician-aided death not only doesn’t cause harm, in my estimation, it can give people that extra bit of control over their life, including the 33% of patients who fill the prescription but never take it. Just having the prescription on hand gives patients an immense feeling of control and comfort. (Emphasis added)

On informed consent, Dr. Blanke does acknowledge that:

“There certainly is worry that a family member might push the medication on a patient because of financial concerns, but that scenario is harder to measure. Rarely, you do get a sense that there may be some outside pressure on patients to take the medication” (Emphasis added)

Instead, Dr. Blanke says that in his experience, it usually is the patient who wants the lethal overdose and the family members who oppose it.  Ironically, assisted suicide laws do not require even notification of family members-at least until after death.

And on conscience rights for those medical professionals who refuse to participate or refer, Dr. Blanke  states that:

“Physicians have an ethical obligation—not to offer the option, if they are personally opposed to it—but to understand what the process entails, to be knowledgeable enough to explain to patients the pros and cons of their decision, and to refer them to a physician if they still want to pursue physician-assisted death….Sticking your head in the sand and refusing to take part at all during this critical time in a patient’s care does a huge disservice to that patient.” (Emphasis added)

Yet, responding to a question on the ethical or moral dilemmas assisted suicide laws pose for oncologists, Dr. Blanke states:

“We have patients who are suffering horribly, and we are helping to end their suffering, so I don’t see how that can be construed as harming our patients.

However, physicians are also faced with the reality of giving a patient a medication that is guaranteed to kill that patient, and regardless of your position on these laws, taking that action is very challenging for any human being, let alone a physician. ” (Emphasis added)

 

CONCLUSION

Over the years, I have seen some of my health care colleagues-like the general public-begin to tentatively approve assisted suicide in the usual polling question about a hypothetical case in which a person is terminally ill and in “unbearable pain”. (Ironically, Oregon’s law does not even mention “pain” or “suffering” as a necessary criteria to be approved  for assisted suicide.)

But I found there are very few fellow professionals who are actually willing to perform or even witness such a death. This is apparently why Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society, also needs to provide help in finding doctors to write lethal prescriptions.

We must realize that there are no winners when assisted suicide is legalized-not the patient, the health care system, society or even the assisted suicide practitioner.

Arguing Life, Death and Assisted Suicide

In the article “Sides discuss NY proposal for aid in dying”, the exchange between Diane Coleman, a founder of Not Dead Yet, the foremost disability organization fighting physician-assisted suicide, and  Dr Timothy Quill, who fought for the constitutionality of physician-assisted suicide in the landmark 1997 US Supreme Court Vacco v Quill decision, is very enlightening.

Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet spoke simply and eloquently:

“I don’t think I speak for all (opponents), but the disability community’s core message is that if assisted suicide is legal, some people’s lives will be lost due to mistakes, coercion and abuse, and that’s an outcome that can never be undone.

There is inherent discrimination in assisted-suicide laws. Most suicidal people receive suicide prevention. Assisted suicide laws would carve out an exception to that, and that exception would apply to people who are elderly, ill, disabled, and those are devalued groups in society. … Assisted-suicide laws would say, ‘these certain people, we not only agree with their suicide but give them the means to carry it out.’ We’re saying it comes down to social justice. Equal rights means equal suicide prevention.”

And

“It’s really not about physical pain. If you look at Oregon reports, about reasons people want to commit suicide, the reasons are things like feeling like the person has lost their autonomy, they’ve lost their dignity, they can’t do the things they used to do. They feel like a burden on their families. Those are psychosocial reasons that relate to the disability that people have when they have an advanced stage or chronic condition.”

On the other hand, Dr. Quill portrayed assisted suicide as little more than a benign discussion:

“Whether or not this practice is legalized, seriously ill patients are asking us to talk about it, they’re asking us to consider it” said Quill, founding director of the palliative care program at URMC and a board-certified palliative care consultant. (Emphasis added)

But to the question “Why do people with a terminal illness want to end their lives?”, Dr. Quill telling states:

“Some of it has to do with severe symptoms. I would say that’s not the majority. The majority is people who are tired of dying. It’s going on way too long for them. The kind of debility and weakness that accompany it, particularly for people that are used to being in charge of their lives, is very, very, very hard. Some of those people want to talk about what options they have to accelerate the process.” (Emphasis added)

This is very different from the way physician-assisted suicide has been sold to the public as a necessary last resort for terminally ill people in “unbearable pain”. However, as a 2014 article  “Dignity, Death, and Dilemmas: A Study of Washington Hospices and Physician-Assisted Death” admits, pain is not even a requirement for receiving physician-assisted suicide  in Oregon and Washington state:

The authorizing legal statutes in both states make no reference to the experience of severe pain or intolerable suffering as an indication for a patient to make a request for physician-assisted death but rely entirely on the entitlement due a patient in respect of their personal dignity. A patient rights framework provides the primary moral structure… (Emphasis added)

Thus, physician-assisted suicide is really about power and control over death, not the  suffering of the individual. And it is this power and control that has led European countries like the Netherlands to expand physician-assisted suicide even to non-terminally ill people who cannot or have not made the death decision themselves such as babies with deformities and people with dementia, mental illness or other impairments.

Closer to the US, the Canadian Supreme Court  has legalized physician-assisted suicide but still  without formalized rules, even on conscience rights.  In the province of Quebec, legal injection euthanasia kits  can be distributed to any doctor who wants them.

The Assisted Suicide Agenda in the US

It is alarming that the influential American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine that had this same Dr. Timothy Quill in the article as a recent past president and honoree of their Visionary award. But it should not be surprising that the AAHPM has changed its former position of opposition to physician-assisted suicide to a position of “studied neutrality” towards what it now calls “physician-assisted death”.  Neutrality is progress to physician-assisted suicide activists like Dr. Quill and organizations like Compassion and Choices that need to neutralize medical opposition as much as possible while quietly setting up relentless campaigns to legalize assisted suicide in every state. If enough states give in, a new Supreme Court decision may even overturn the Vacco v Quill decision and legalize physician-assisted suicide throughout the US.

But in the meantime, trying to sell “neutrality” to doctors and convincing the media to change the term “physician-assisted suicide” to  “physician-assisted death” cannot mask the inevitable and lethal damage done not only to individuals but also to our medical and legal institutions that can no longer ensure ethical protection for our lives.

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.

My letter on ethical palliative care published in National Catholic Register 6/14/15

http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/letters-06.14.15

Regarding “Pope Francis: Abandonment Does Greatest Injustice to the Elderly” (NCRegister.com, March 6):
As an R.N. with 45 years of nursing experience, including many end-of-life situations, I’m sure the Pope meant “ethical” palliative care, which is indeed wonderful for both patients of any age and their families. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend towards calling unethical practices “palliative care.”
For example, just last year, I saw a middle-aged nurse/friend’s life deliberately ended due to so-called palliative care labeled “comfort care.” She had recently suffered a severe brain injury and was declared hopeless after a couple of weeks. The family was strongly encouraged to switch to “comfort care.” She was taken off a ventilator, had her feeding tube removed (against family wishes), and the sedation medications used when she was on the ventilator were continued and even increased when she continued to breathe on her own, until she died a few days later.
The public needs to be aware of such practices and what the Church teaches so that they can make informed decisions if they find themselves or a loved one in a difficult situation.
Nancy Valko
St. Louis, Missouri