End of Life Act a ‘Comfort’ When Pain Becomes Unbearable

Jun. 13, 2016 / By

Matt Fairchild was serving as an active duty army sergeant at Fort Hood in Texas in 2012 when he noticed that a mole under his ear had gotten bigger.

“Out of boredom, I thought I should take the time to see my doctor since he was right there,” said Fairchild, 46.

His doctor sent him to a dermatologist who originally said not to worry, but then four weeks later, while having dinner in Florida with his wife, sister, and mother, he got the call that he had stage-two melanoma.

By the time he had gone through his first year of treatment it had already spread through his lymph nodes, and no sooner had he retired from the army and moved to Burbank that he felt a bump on the side of his face. By November 2013, the cancer had spread to his bones and his brain.

“I’ve had a total of 10 tumors radiated in my brain, and I currently have two 1-and-a-half centimeter legions on each side of the back of my brain,” said Fairchild, who in addition to having an infusion of chemotherapy every three weeks takes up to 25 pills a day for pain.

“I mostly deal with pain in my lower back,” said Fairchild, who lives with his wife, Ginger and his cat. “I also have tumors in the back of my tailbone and my hips, so any movement causes a lot of pain.”

As of June 9, Fairchild and other California residents who have a terminal illness can take advantage of SB 128, otherwise known as the End of Life Option Act.

The act allows adults with capacity to make their own medical decisions to request aid in dying if their physician determines they have 6 months or less to live.

The Golden State now joins Vermont, Oregon, Washington, and Montana in providing medical aid in dying. Another 19 states are also considering passing “death with dignity” acts.

“I truly believe that the impact of the End of Life Option Act will benefit many individuals who are in excruciating pain and who are dying from a terminal illness,” said Joe Barnes, Southern California Outreach Manager for Compassion and Choices, an organization that is dedicated to the rights of terminally ill patients.

“It will provide a comfort for them knowing that if their pain becomes so unbearable they have access to medical aid in dying if they meet the criteria,” Barnes added.

That criteria includes proof of California residency, approval from two doctors, a written agreement witnessed by two adults, and an oral agreement.

Under the law, a patient requesting aid in dying must also show that they do not suffer from a mental disorder as determined by a specialist that could impair their decision-making.

Fairchild says that while he hasn’t personally decided whether he will take the aid in dying drugs, just having them in his apartment would provide him comfort if his suffering became too unbearable.

For now, the 46-year old spends his days reading, playing video games, watching movies, and watching the sunset with his wife of 18 years.

“It’s more about what we’re doing in the moment,” said Fairchild. “We don’t have any conversations or thoughts about the future good or bad. It’s just kind of sitting together and watching whatever we’re watching at the moment.”

Support for aid in dying has grown extensively over the past few years. A Gallup poll taken just last year shows that nearly 7 out of 10 Americans support doctor-assisted suicide. Among 18-34 year olds, support is at a staggering 81 percent, a 19 percent point change from two years ago.

Long Beach resident Lynn McAleece supports the law after having seen her 94-year-old great aunt die of cancer in the hospital.

“She passed peacefully in her sleep. I was so sad that she had passed but also relieved that she had what she wanted without suffering more than she did,” McAleece said. “If I was ever in a position to have to decide this for myself I would want the option.”

Others feel torn between compassion and religious duty.

“Being a Christian, you’re still taking a life before it’s time,” said Shanna Llewellyn, a Long Beach resident. “But I know those in great pain on their deathbed may think otherwise. You don’t want people to suffer.”

Despite the act’s overwhelming support, Patrick O’Donnell, who represents Long Beach in the State Assembly, says he voted against The End of Life Option Act because he saw it as a slippery slope.

“It gets too easy for us to simply give someone a pill and end their life, and I think we need to be very cautious with the power of that event,” said O’Donnell, adding he heard from people who were passionate on both sides of the issue.

For Barnes, the law is a step in the right direction.

“My dad had stage four colon cancer which went all the way to his brain,” said Barnes, who resides in Los Angeles. After 13 days out of the ICU, Barnes’ father went into a coma before dying.

“It was a pretty horrible death and it wasn’t how he wanted to die, and if he had the option to choose medical aid in dying it would have been something he could have pursued,” Barnes said.

In the end, said Barnes, it is about giving patients the autonomy to choose for themselves how best to manage their pain.

“[Patients] just want comfort in knowing that if their pain becomes so unbearable, if they are in excruciating pain,” said Barnes, “that they have access to medication to end their suffering and have a peaceful death.”

If you or a loved one are suffering from terminal illness and would like more information about The End of Life Option Act, please call The Compassion and Choices California End of Life Option Act Information Line at (800) 893-4548 or go online at www.endoflifeoption.org.

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Ben Novotny

Ben Novotny is an alumnus of California State University, Long Beach where he majored in Journalism and minored in American Studies. At CSULB Ben was a staff writer for The Union Weekly, the student-run campus newspaper and was actively involved with the school's TV production studio. Ben was a Contributing Writer for The Long Beach Post and the Long Beach Business Journal and has been a Youth Reporter at VoiceWaves for four years.