When I first joined EOLCCA’s Board of Directors, I decided to go through the volunteer training so I could get a handle on our core work: to help Californians learn about their legal end-of-life options, and to help facilitate their choices. The training was excellent. Afterwards, I spent several blocks of time being “on call” – to answer initial questions and give people the resources and guidance they requested. I told my colleagues I would probably never “attend” a death because I had not done it before, and I wasn’t sure I was emotionally prepared. I did leave one small loophole: I would do so if other volunteers were not available and our client was ready to take the medication.
Well, that day came! We got a call from Kaiser Permanente’s End of Life Options Program with information about a patient who qualified for medical aid in dying and he wanted to take the medication as soon as it was delivered. Billy (the name I will give him) had cancer with metastases to his bones and brain. He was in severe pain. The medication was on order. He lived alone and his only brother lives on the east coast. The Kaiser EOL coordinator asked if EOLCCA volunteers were available to help him through the process.
Since most of our local volunteers were busy with other clients, I agreed to do it, with the understanding that a more experienced volunteer would be available to help me on the day Billy planned to take his medication. I was assured that would happen, since EOLCCA’s practice is to always have two volunteers attend a death together.
Relieved and… grateful
I visited Billy a few days before he planned to take the medication. As someone who would be at his bedside on the day he takes the medication, I wanted to get to know him a bit, and I wanted him to feel comfortable with me. He gave me a short synopsis of his life. Since we were both avid readers, we exchanged information about our favorite authors. I also reminded him that at any point in time, he could simply decide not to take the medication. He told me that if he had had the medication at that moment, he would take it. He had thought a lot about it, and he was ready. He was relieved and grateful that he lived in a state where medical aid in dying is legal.
On the day of the planned death, an experienced volunteer became available and we arrived in Billy’s room shortly after the Kaiser pharmacist hand-delivered the prescription. He had already explained the medication process to Billy. Billy took the anti-nausea medication, the first step in the medication protocol. We again reminded Billy that it was his choice to take the subsequent life-ending medication or not, but once he did, there was no turning back. He told us he was still sure of his decision.
Having time for last goodbyes
Billy’s brother requested a final FaceTime visit with him to say good-bye, and Billy agreed. During that last conversation, Billy gave him some direction about his financial affairs, and asked about his nephew. His brother, somewhat stunned, told him how his nephew was doing and to just make sure he was as comfortable as possible. It was a tearful call, but an important one, and deeply appreciated by Billy’s brother.
After Billy took the final medication, he chatted with us, mostly about his love of books. After ten minutes, he fell into a deep sleep, and passed away peacefully in about an hour with the two of us by his side.
At the end of the day, I felt honored to have had the privilege to support Billy in his choice to use medical aid in dying, and to witness his passing. From the first phone call through the day of Billy’s death, we spent many hours on his case–and this is not unusual. I was also fortunate to participate in the very core of the work we do at EOLCCA: to help our terminally-ill clients find relief from their suffering, and achieve the peaceful, dignified death they want.
Stewart Florsheim serves on the Board of Directors of End of Life Choices California and chairs its Outreach and Education Committee. He has been an activist and leader in the end-of-life choice movement in California since 2003. During that time he was deeply involved in the effort to successfully pass the California End of Life Option Act in 2015. Stewart has given many presentations on end-of-life choice, including on radio and TV.
EOLCCA supports a strong team of experienced volunteers throughout the state, ready to help anyone, anywhere in California free of charge with information and support regarding all end-of-life planning and choices, including aid in dying through the California End of Life Option Act. You can find comprehensive information on our user-friendly website. To support our work, or request an educational presentation, please visit ways to help. Thank you.