There was chicken, there was poetry, and there was love. Not much later, John Shields’ life was over. Shields had been able to attend his own wake, before dying quickly and gracefully. He shared a celebration of his life with friends and loved ones in a hospice after a British Columbia Court ruled in a similar case that death at a time of his own choosing was legal. His long-term battle with a hereditary form of a degenerative terminal disease called amyloidosis came to an end when his doctor helped him with a prescribed dosage of drugs.
Shield’s story in the New York Times was linked last year on our Facebook page. You can and should read it again here. It is a rare and compelling witness to a passage that we all might wish for if we were in his circumstances.
Death is rarely served with dignity. The appellation given to a final passage like Mr. Shields is too often called “doctor assisted suicide.” That fires up the specter of the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who engraved his name in the history books by assisting terminally ill patients without legal protection, often in a very public spotlight. Kevorkian was a pioneer who was ultimately jailed for his actions.
Variations of death with dignity are now legal in five American states: California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. California’s law took effect in 2017, and in British Columbia,(where Shields resideds and in Montana, the law was authorized by the province/state supreme courts.
The primary objection of doctors to legalization of Death with Dignity has to do with a doctor’s basic oath. “Do no harm,” which some interpret to include helping a terminally ill patient die before their final struggle ends. However, Dr. Stefanie Green told the New York Times that in cases like her work with Mr. Shields, the opposite is true. “This is on the continuum of care of helping people.”
The British Columbia law differs from most American experiences through the intensified role of the physician. Most American laws call for a physician or nurse practitioner to simply authorize the use of drug for a terminally ill patient.. Administering the lethal drugs relies on the patient being able to do this for themselves.. Pharmacists are called up to dispense the drug. In British Columbia, according to the New York Times, doctors often actually supervise the administration of the drug, although participation in the process is not required by doctors.
As death with dignity variations now cover the entire West Coast from British Columbia to California, there is a growing recognition and acceptance that despite the advances of modern medicine, life is more than the presence of a pulse. Life is the presence of all that has been experienced since baby’s first cry, the effects of all who have blessed that life, and all that has touched the world because of that life. Life’s ending is equally precious. When and if medicine can finally assure and provide pain-free dignity to the very end, there will be no need for death with dignity.
For now, we can help ourselves and others by living fully and deeply, as John Shields did, and by becoming familiar with the dying process and our options long before they are needed.