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How We Help Our Clients

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.

Severe pain

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.

Still sure

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.

volunteer at bedside
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.

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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.

In Love, A Memoir of Love and Loss

I often receive requests to read and review books. As a result, I have quite a pile of books on my nightstand. And as an avid reader, this is a lovely problem to have. Amy Bloom’s book, In Love, came to me through a different channel. One of our esteemed board members, Fran Johns, recently wrote a commentary of the book that was published in March 2022. I read it, it piqued my interest, and I got the book.

Interestingly, I had just finished reading Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, and then watched the movie again. It had been a few years since I’d seen it and wanted to watch it after reading the book. An excellent story. So my brain was primed for Alzheimer’s disease (not literally!) when In Love landed on my nightstand.

 

Few Available Choices

I have been interested in, concerned about, and curious about Alzheimer’s disease for decades.  When I was in private family practice many years ago, I walked that path with quite a few patients and no matter what anyone tried, we really could only provide comfort care. Still Alice and In Love both depict the almost unbelievable devastation of Alzheimer’s disease. Not only to the patient, but to the family as well.

I thought Amy Bloom did a heart-wrenching job of sharing the experience of watching her beloved start to show early signs of the disease, becoming aware of the probability of the disease even before diagnosis, and finally accepting a clear understanding of what was happening and had been happening for years. She and her husband, Brian, were very brave as they confronted the issues and choices available to them based on their preferences and values.

Threading the Needle

I loved how personal the book is. I ached for them as they made plans, and then more plans, for Brian to find his peaceful death. I felt sad that they were unable to find that peaceful death in their own home and had to go to Switzerland to find medical aid in dying for early Alzheimer’s disease. As someone who has worked in the field of end-of-life care for over ten years now, it was still shocking to me to read her words about how poorly the US has constructed any kind of system for compassionate end-of-life choice. Yes, some states have medical aid in dying laws that allow physicians to legally prescribe medication to end a life. And people in those states are grateful for the choice.

But, as Amy Bloom said, accessing those laws is like ‘threading the needle”. Only a very specific cohort of patients are able to meet the requirements to access the law. A person must a) be mentally capable and understand the ramifications of the choice, b) be an adult and have a terminal diagnosis (life expectancy of less than six months) made by two physicians, and c) be able to self-administer the drugs.

 

In Love, A Memoir of Love and Loss, book cover
Walking Through This Process

Of course, many people, particularly those with terminal cancer, are able to access the law under these parameters with relative ease. They still, however, need to find a doctor who will prescribe the medication. Many people don’t, or can’t, find a physician to prescribe because they live in a rural area, or their own doctor either doesn’t know how to prescribe or doesn’t want to. The law allows for that. I am grateful to be part of EOLCCA as we continue to help people, at no charge, to walk through this process and overcome barriers they might run into. You can read about our services here.

For those who are not eligible for medical aid-in-dying and don’t wish to go to Switzerland, there are other end-of-life choices. We outline them here on our website and discuss these with clients all the time. One of those choices that people find most interesting is Voluntary Stopping Eating & Drinking (VSED), though it  is not everyone’s cup of tea, as Amy Bloom discussed. This is totally understandable. However, we have supported many people through VSED and with adequate support and understanding, it is often a very approachable way of embracing nature’s authentic way of dying. It is seen in many cultures and in the animal kingdom as well. For some comprehensive resources on VSED, click here.

I applaud Amy Bloom’s courage in supporting her husband’s wishes to leave this world in his own way, in his own time. What a beautiful gift she gave him with that support. And what a beautiful gift to us all with this lovely book. Thank you.

End of Life Choices California is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides its services of support and information at no charge to our clients. If you would like to support our work, you can do so easily by clicking here. We are grateful for all gifts, large and small.

Please keep an eye out for next month’s blog post by one of our volunteers about dementia and the Dementia Directive.

Why I Do This Work

I’ll call her Hazel – because she didn’t give me permission to tell her story. If I had asked, though, I’m satisfied that she would have happily agreed.

Hazel was 78, and dying of lung cancer. Though hospice had been able to keep her largely pain-free, she was terrified of the possible end-stage symptoms of her disease and had chosen to use the California End of Life Option Act to control her dying. It was early afternoon on the day she had chosen to die. Hazel had said her goodbyes to family – mostly nieces and nephews in other states – and her two best friends had come to be with her at the retirement condo where she had lived for more than a decade.

 

Everything Will Be All Right

In the morning I had come by to help arrange things as she wanted. We put a CD player in a nearby corner, with a selection of her favorite classical music. We opened the window to a cool San Francisco breeze, and propped her up on big pillows. She wanted to go over some documents with the two friends one more time, so I left the anti-nausea and other medications with them and went to get some lunch. 

Around 3:00 I returned, as planned. I asked Joan, another volunteer who is a retired nurse, to go with me because she’d met Hazel and the two had become friends. Hazel wanted to die in the late afternoon. 


This Is Why

When Joan and I walked in, the two friends were seated at the kitchen table, patiently preparing the medication. “She’s already pretty groggy,” they said, “but she wants to see you!” So we went on down the hallway to Hazel’s bedroom.

She was still propped up – leaning a little but comfortably upright. Music was playing, the breeze was ruffling the curtains and drifting over her bed. Hazel looked up and flashed a beatific smile at Joan and me as we entered the room.

“Oh, wonderful!” she said. “You’re here. Now everything will be all right.”

And this is why I serve, with joy and gratitude, as an EOLCCA volunteer. 

A lifelong newspaper and magazine writer, EOLCCA Board Member Fran Moreland Johns has published fiction, nonfiction, and several books. Her focus on end-of-life issues includes many volunteer years, numerous articles and one book, Dying Unafraid. She holds a BA in Art from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and currently blogs at Medium.com and franjohns.net. Her short story collection, Marshallville Stories, was released in April.

Looking Forward in 2022

This month, End of Life Choices California (EOLCCA) celebrates the completion of three years of service to the people of California.

Dear Friends and Supporters,

I am proud to share with you our accomplishments in 2021 and our vision for 2022.

EOLCCA volunteers worked diligently throughout 2021 to provide Californians the information and support needed to successfully navigate their legal end-of-life options. At the same time, we have been busy developing plans to expand our programs and services in 2022.

Today I am asking for your help.

Belief in our mission

Many of you have already offered your support in word or deed, and we thank you with gratitude for that support.

Because of your belief in our mission, we have been able to keep our commitment to provide educational presentations as well as services to clients and others at no charge, ensuring accessibility to all.

California poppies

In 2021, our Client Volunteer Program:

      • Onboarded and mentored 26 volunteers throughout the state who provide extensive phone support and client counseling, as well as bedside attendance for aid-in-dying;
      • Responded to and counseled 676 individuals and their families who reached out to EOLCCA for support, information and guidance;
      • Were present bedside (and even Facetime) for 8 clients who died peacefully with the support of our experienced volunteers;
      • Provided 24 presentations to community-based hospices and retirement communities about end-of-life issues and medical aid in dying;
      • Educated 12 physicians/pharmacies new to medical aid in dying who reached out to EOLCCA for our expertise.  These medical professionals are now prepared and available to provide medical aid-in-dying services to the terminally ill.
      • Tying this together is our user-friendly website, packed with information, which garnered more than 17,000 visitors in 2021 and over 1,000 followers receive our communications across various social media channels.

Expanding Our Impact

We are proud of our volunteers and of our accomplishments.

In 2022, we are committed to expanding our impact throughout the state. The majority of terminally-ill Californians still do not know about the End of Life Option Act nor about what end-of-life options are available.

This year EOLCCA will work to reach out to historically underserved communities, specifically communities of color and in rural areas. To this end we are actively seeking and recruiting multicultural volunteers to help provide end-of-life information and services to ALL Californians. Our goal this year is to expand our volunteer base while also providing educational programs in more underserved communities.

We need your support to make our work possible!  Please click here to make a contribution now.  Your gift at any level will help us expand our reach into communities where the need is great. Thank you for your continued commitment to our shared vision of a dignified death for all.

With gratitude,

Judy Neall Epstein
President and Founding Director
End of Life Choices California

Major Improvements to the End of Life Option Act

EOLCCA is thrilled to share the long-awaited news that yesterday, October 5, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 380.  This new law makes some badly needed adjustments to the existing End of Life Option Act in California, which was signed into law exactly 6 years ago on that very date by then Governor Jerry Brown.

These new provisions will become effective on January 1, 2022. Here is what will be different for anyone seeking Medical Aid in Dying in California in less than three months from now.

  • The new bill reduces the onerous 15-day waiting period between the required two oral requests, to 48 hours.  This is a big change and will help many people access the law who couldn’t previously.
  • Healthcare systems and hospices will now have to post their aid-in-dying policies on their websites. This will be extremely helpful in guiding people as to where they choose to receive their healthcare, especially if they are very sick or terminally ill and wish to request medical aid in dying.
  • The final attestation form will be completely eliminated.  This was a document that the patient was expected to fill out and sign within 48 hours prior to taking aid-in-dying medication.
  • If a terminally ill patient requests medical aid in dying and their physician does not wish to participate, the physician will be required to tell the patient they will not support them.  AND, the physician must document the request in the patient’s medical record and transfer the patient’s medical records upon request.
  • The amendment also clarifies that medical aid in dying medication can be taken within a healthcare facility.

We applaud Senator Susan Eggman for her dedicated leadership on this important issue and all California lawmakers who voted for this new measure, as well as Governor Newsom for signing this amendment into law.