Recently, retired newspaper photographer Peter Haley penned an editorial in the Seattle Times: “State’s ‘Death with Dignity’ law failed my wife.” In his piece, Haley wrote that Toni, his “beloved wife of 27 years,” was forced to die alone because Washington state’s medical aid-in-dying (MAID) law doesn’t cover ALS. Toni chose to die on her own terms before ALS ran its course, but because MAID requires a six-month terminal diagnosis, she had to find an alternative method of ending her life. According to Haley, WA’s “poorly formulated laws” meant that he was unable to be present with his wife when she died because “If it appeared that I had assisted in any way, I would be in legal jeopardy.”
While Peter and Toni Haley’s story is heart-breaking, the information in the op-ed isn’t entirely accurate. MAID is indeed limited to imminently terminal conditions, and many of us here at at VRNW agree that the law should be broadened to apply to people suffering from degenerative illnesses like ALS, Parkinson’s, and dementia. But the Haleys appear not to have known that VSED, a legally available option in all fifty states, would have allowed Peter and other friends and family members to do what they believed they could not: provide Toni with “aid and comfort during the planning and carrying [out]” of a hastened death that she chose for herself.
Josselyn Winslow, one of the founders of VRNW, penned a response to Haley’s editorial and sent it to the Seattle Times. Here it is below in its entirety.
Like so many others who posted a comment, I felt sad for Toni because she died alone, and for Peter, who was not with her.
My family’s situation was different. As we neared our 80th birthdays, my husband Frank and I talked about end-of-life issues. We both agreed we wanted to be able to continue to manage our own ADLs (activities of daily living), especially those related to basic self-care: dressing, eating, toileting, and walking. We tried to stay healthy, but a few years later, Frank was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Knowing that dementia would eventually rob him of his ability to care for himself, Frank ultimately decided to be proactive and use VSED (voluntarily stopping eating and drinking) to end his life before the final stages of dementia could overwhelm him. We talked to family and friends and purchased the book Choosing to Die by Phyllis Shacter, intending to use it as a guide when Frank’s dementia progressed.
For some years, Frank managed well. But when the day came that he stood in front of the bathroom washbowl and forgot how to turn on the water to brush his teeth, we knew it was time to move forward with his plan. His attorney prepared documents to protect the healthcare professionals who would be helping, and family members signed the documents. Our doctor, who had said, “I’ll do anything that’s legal,” agreed to be supportive. We hired caregivers to help Frank twenty-four/seven so our family could focus on him as a husband, father, and grandfather rather than as a patient.
Family members surrounded Frank and celebrated him during his last days. The doctor prescribed medications to keep him more comfortable and came twice to visit Frank in our home. On the fourth day after Frank stopped eating and drinking, a Hospice nurse took over management of his medications. A priest came to give him last rites. Nine days after he began VSED, Frank died. We all said regretful goodbyes, but our family agreed that Frank had made a valiant choice.
Medical aid-in-dying (MAID) may be legal in Washington State, but as Toni and Peter Haley discovered, many people with life-ending health issues are not able to meet the qualifications for physician support. While VSED is not an easy choice, it is a legal end-of-life option to hasten death. Unfortunately, many people do not know it is available.
Frank died in May of 2017. Since that time at least two more books have been published about VSED: Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking by Quill, Menzel, Pope and Schwarz and The VSED Handbook: A Practical Guide to Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking by VRNW member Kate Christie. As awareness of VSED as a widely available legal method of hastening death continues to grow, perhaps fewer people will have to die alone, worried about the legal impacts their hastened death could have on surviving family members.