I am passionate about advocating for aid in dying because I lost my girlfriend to tongue cancer almost two years ago. Cathy Quinn suffered dearly, and it wasn’t necessary. Cathy was an extraordinary woman. For two years she battled cancer with a driving determination, relentless stamina, and an incredible wit. She tackled her disease head on. She questioned her doctors, she reviewed her options, and she made critical decisions throughout her treatments. In short, she took charge of her health care, and was determined to beat that evil disease.
The last ten months of her life she took nourishment from a feeding tube. She was unable to eat, drink, taste, smell, or speak. Even under those circumstances she found inspiring ways to enjoy life, and bring joy to others. She loved her pets, her cute little house, me, and dozens of friends. She spoiled us all.
Cathy was also a realist. After three major surgeries to replace parts of her tongue with other body parts, multiple rounds of radiation, multiple rounds of chemo, a boatload of pharmaceuticals, and countless procedures, the cancer returned for a fourth time. It spread throughout her body. Cathy knew she was going to die. She wanted to go on her own terms. She wanted to have a say in how she died, just as she had a say in every other aspect of her life. She wanted to be able to die in peace, in her own home in familiar surroundings, with those she loved. She earned it, she deserved it—she didn’t get it.
Why is it that New York State requires people to suffer at the end of life, regardless of circumstance or choice?
The option does exist. Aid in dying is available in several states. Oregon has provided this option to its citizens without a hitch for 18 years. We were devastated to learn New York state does not allow it. How can that possibly be? How can some Americans have the autonomy to make use of all that medical science provides, and not others? Why is it that New York State requires people to suffer at the end of life, regardless of circumstance or choice? It made us furious to learn Cathy was helpless.
Cathy’s best option to have some control over her death was to choose to stop eating and drinking. Doctors explained to us that the cessation of eating and drinking would likely be difficult. The hunger pains would pass, but the thirst wouldn’t go away. They explained that after several days Cathy would eventually fall unconscious, and then linger some indefinite number of weeks before she would die from dehydration. This was a far cry from self-administering medicine that would allow her to gently fall asleep, and peacefully pass away at her choosing. How could she be given the choice to hasten her own death, but then denied the most compassionate way of doing it? We talked about how unfair this was.
I told Cathy I would continue to fight for aid in dying after she was gone. Sadly, Cathy never made it to the date she picked to stop eating and drinking. She suffered terrible grand mal seizures the night before. I was unable to take care of her at the home she loved. The hospice facility I took her to was wonderful for what it was, but it was not her choice. I want to change the law in New York. I want Cathy’s voice to be heard. No one has been able to give me a good reason why Cathy had to suffer the way she did. There isn’t one.
For more on Cathy’s story, click here. During the entire course of her illness, Cathy wrote a blog about it. Her courage, determination, and sense of humor shine through this very moving story, and give a first-hand look at what living with a terminal illness can be like.