I’ve been a resident of Montana for more than 30 years, and I believe that Montanans who face imminent death from terminal illnesses deserve the right to make their own end-of-life choices. Those choices should include Death with Dignity. I hope the Montana courts will soon rule that our state Constitution protects the dignity and privacy of dying patients who wish their physicians to aid them in lessening their suffering while dying. This is a personal issue for my family.
My father became terminally ill with mesothelioma. My mother and I witnessed my Dad’s suffering as we helped care for him in his final months. I was very close to my father and wanted desperately for him to have a peaceful death. Due to Montana’s prohibition on aid in dying for terminal patients, my dad ended up dying a prolonged and agonizing death. I write about his death in hopes that other Montana families might soon have better end-of-life choices.
My dad was born in South Dakota and joined the military in the 1950s. Dad was a musician and played trumpet in the U.S. Navy band. He traveled with the Admiral on the USS Saint Paul, providing the pomp and circumstance that made the Admiral’s travels something everyone noticed. He slept in an upper bunk and awoke daily with a fine white powder covering him from the asbestos insulation covering the boiler pipes that ran above his bunk. The shuddering of the ship when the twelve-inch guns discharged another shell into Korea rained down the asbestos.
After his Navy service, Dad became a high school band teacher. He earned his masters in Psychology, and then became a guidance counselor in Iowa, where my mother also worked in the schools. Our family fell in love with Montana on summer camping trips, and we moved here permanently in 1975. We lived in Swan Lake, and then Bigfork.
Many years later dad contracted mesothelioma from his exposure to asbestos. As soon as he was diagnosed he contacted the Hemlock Society, as he believed strongly in a person’s right to control their destiny. His health plummeted as the cancer painfully assaulted the lining of his lungs. Dad suffered greatly. As a cancer patient he was subjected to the poisons of chemotherapy and useless exploratory surgery on his lungs. Breathing became a struggle. His mobility departed and with it his ability to take matters into his own hands and end his suffering. He was helpless and now at the mercy of those who cared for him.
Dad wanted the option to shorten and relieve his suffering. He wanted to control his own destiny and die with his dignity intact. I visualized brains and blood the day Dad asked for my help in hastening his death. I wanted to help him, but I felt constrained by the possibility of being prosecuted and sent to prison. I knew I would loop the movie of my hand dealing my fathers death for the rest of my life. That would have been personal agony.
Soon, my father started hoarding his pain medications. He was stashing them in a bowl under his bed, grinding them with a spoon and slowly building his stockpile so he could hasten his death when he felt the suffering was unbearable. This perceived control of the situation gave him a great deal of comfort. My mother found this stash and disposed of it. Dad was angry with my mother and now felt powerless in his quest to take control of his suffering. I believe that this conflict between them undermined the love they had shared for decades. My dad died unnecessarily angry at his faithful, loving partner. Dad began investigating other ways to end his suffering. He looked for legal options. He considered going out on the porch in winter so he could freeze to death. We tried to figure out how to override the controls on the morphine pump so he could overdose. He was too weak to go the shotgun route, so with all of his options exhausted, laid there, suffered and waited for the inevitable.
He never did obtain the aid in dying he desperately sought. He suffered a long and slow death. My mother and I only wish that there had been a way for his doctors to help ease his suffering at the end of his life. As I look back on my father’s life, it was a strong and dignified one until the end. He did his best to maintain his dignity but the State of Montana blocked his personal choice. I hope that others will soon have the right to make their own end-of-life choices.
Todd Johnson lives in Kalispell
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