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The End In Two Acts

Both men were dying. One took advantage of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. The other, unfortunately, lives in California.

March 11, 2007|Lauren Kessler | Lauren Kessler's latest book, "Dancing With Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's," to be published in June by Viking Press, began as a story of the same name in this magazine in 2004.

Fourteen months ago, Tom McDonald heard the news no one wants to hear. At 76, he was an active retiree who lived in a comfortable ranch house overlooking Lake Oroville, north of Sacramento, a good-looking man with a luxuriant head of silver hair and an outdoorsman's ruddy, fleshy face. He and his second wife, Dolores, traveled the West Coast in their 28-foot RV, took weekend jaunts to Tahoe, lounged with friends and family on their "party barge." Tom went trout fishing. He invented gadgets.

Three years before, he had felt a pinhead-sized bump behind his right knee. The dermatologist thought it was probably nothing to worry about but did a biopsy to make sure. When the results came back positive for melanoma, Tom took it calmly. He had had a cancerous growth removed from his lip years before. They'll just take this one off, he thought, and I'll be done with it.

The doctors thought they got it all. But a later CAT scan showed that the melanoma had penetrated deep into the tissue. On Jan. 5, 2006, in his doctor's office in Roseville, Tom and Dolores heard the results: The cancer had spread to his shoulder, into his lungs and was threatening to move to a lymph node beneath his jaw. Chemotherapy doesn't work well in these cases, the doctor explained, and radiation isn't much better. Tom had, the doctor figured, a year to live.

It took Tom only a few days to think through his situation. A 30-year career as an electronics technician, much of it in the aerospace industry, had taught him to look at problems dispassionately, find the elegant solution--simple, workable, quickly implemented--and then go to it. His terminal disease was the problem. His solution was simple: When the time came, he told his wife, daughter and son, when he felt he could no longer tolerate whatever the end-stage illness was doing to him, he would take matters into his own hands.

IN THE U.S., citizens have many rights, but they do not, strictly speaking, have the right to control their own deaths. Although attempting to take one's life isn't considered a felony, aiding and abetting the act is. If Tom McDonald wanted, or needed, medical help to end his life, he couldn't legally get it in California, where it's a crime to help terminally ill patients hasten their deaths. Now California--for the fifth time in 15 years--is considering legislation that would decriminalize such assistance. A bill similar to one defeated by a single vote in the state's Senate Judiciary Committee last summer was just introduced, with proponents hoping to take advantage of what they see as a more favorable atmosphere in the Legislature following the November 2006 election. (A Field Poll of registered voters last year showed that 69% believed incurably ill patients should have the right to ask for and get life-ending medication.) Should the bill become law, California will be the second state--its neighbor, Oregon, is the first and only--to legalize aid in dying. The California bill, modeled after the Oregon law, would allow a doctor to prescribe lethal drugs to a terminally ill patient.

When the state Senate Judiciary Committee held its hearings last June, Tom McDonald was there. He was then six months into what he had been told would be the last year of his life.

"My doctor told me I'd know when I'm near the end because I'll be coughing up blood," he testified. He was sitting motionless, a little slumped, at the witness table. "I'm not too thrilled with the prospect of ending my life drowning in my own blood." His voice cracked. Someone brought him a glass of water, and he composed himself. He didn't want to expose his family to the "horrors" of his dying, he continued. He didn't want to lose his dignity. In the absence of a humane and legal way to end his life, in the absence of help from a compassionate doctor, Tom said he didn't want to end his life violently, as some in his situation choose to do. He had expressed a different opinion in a letter he had written earlier to California Assemblywoman Patty Berg, the bill's cosponsor. In the letter, he said he planned to end his life with "a 9mm injection to my head."

During the months between Tom McDonald's first and second surgeries, David Bradley was diagnosed as terminally ill. He had esophageal cancer--like melanoma, tough to beat. He had noticed months before that he was having trouble swallowing, but Midwestern-born David was not one to run to a doctor. He was 79 years old, and had become, in his later years, part desert rat, part cowboy.

He lived alone in the high desert of southwest New Mexico. He stopped every morning for coffee at a cowboy diner, rode his horse, walked his dog, painted, socialized, took photographs. He worked out at a gym several times a week. He was a free spirit, a nature-lover, a man who carried an eagle feather talisman, a man who had married and parted company with four wives.

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