Many observers predicted that Washington patients who wanted to use the state’s new Death with Dignity law would have trouble finding physicians to help them, particularly in Eastern and Central Washington. That prediction came to pass this week with the death of Benton City resident Stephen Wallace, 76, a terminally ill cancer patient whose physicians refused to offer him a lethal prescription under the law.
This morning, Wallace’s daughter, Trisha Crnkovich of Kennewick, talked at a telephone news conference about how much pain her father suffered in his last few weeks and how he had wanted to avoid the same type of agonizing cancer death his wife, Barbara, had suffered 22 years before. Wallace, a retired Hanford Nuclear Reservation worker, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on March 7, and was told he had only weeks to live. He died on April 7. “He had repeatedly expressed the desire to die as he lived,” she said. But even though he was under the care of hospice staff, “he had terrible, unbearable pain in his last hours of life.”
His attending physician and another physician both refused to help him, citing their personal ethics, she said. The hospital where he was admitted, Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, could not find a physician to help him even though it previously had announced that it would allow its staff to help terminally ill patients under the Death with Dignity law.
Kadlec’s CEO, Rand Wortman, said hospitals have no obligation under the law to help patients find a participating physician. “We respect autonomy of both the physician and patient to make these determinations,” he said. “But the public thinks we’re required to find physicians to help them do it. That’s not the case. It’s unfortunate that the initiative didn’t address this issue.”
Under the voter-approved law, which took effect March 5, physicians and other medical personnel are free to decline to help patients with their aid-in-dying requests. But many experts say physicians have an ethical obligation to refer patients to other physicians who would help, or at least refer them to Compassion & Choices of Washington, which can link them to participating physicians.
At the news conference, Crnkovich and Dr. Tom Preston, Compassion’s medical director, urged Washington physicians to balance their personal views with the desires of their qualifying patients to receive help in ending their lives. Preston said that while there are enough participating physicians in urban areas, patients like Wallace in non-urban areas are having difficulty finding a physician to help them.
Preston also urged people to find out ahead of time whether their doctor would assist them under the Death with Dignity law if they chose that, and, if not, find another doctor who would. He noted that Compassion has a form letter on its Web site allowing people to ask their physicians whether they would honor their wishes in end-of-life situations.
Preston also announced that Compassion is sending a letter to all Washington physicians who deal with terminally ill patients asking them to return a confidential card indicating whether they would assist or refer patients under the Death with Dignity law. The letter is signed by himself and five other prominent doctors, including Dr. Bill Robertson, former president of the Washington State Medical Association.
“My father was a veteran who supported and defended personal liberty,” Crnkovich said. “”He wanted the peace of mind of knowing he had some control over his manner of death. He needed a physician to help him in his own free choice. Our family is making a public appeal to Washington physicians. It’s critical that doctors step forward to respect the decisions of patients like my father.”
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