He was sick, but it wasn’t like he was going to die anytime soon. A year ago, my dog Sierra sustained a neurological insult that left him delirious, unable to walk straight and almost entirely blind and deaf. Still, he enjoyed our loving touch, snuggling against my thigh as I watched a movie or falling asleep in my arms while being held. I struggled with these thoughts as the vet pushed the pink, fluid-filled syringe into his vein. He collapsed into my arms and let out a groan, as he had many times before. But this time, he did not get up.
I said goodbye and left him to join my parents standing in the waiting room. My father looked up at me, “Is it done?” I nodded, and suddenly, we all broke into tears. We embraced each other and talked about what a good dog he was. We told each other it was the right thing to do, that it was time. But was it? Why now?
I couldn’t help but think we were being selfish. Objectively, nothing much had changed since his suspected stroke, albeit he was undoubtedly more of a burden. We were constantly cleaning up after him, redirecting him when he got caught in a corner and paying for vet visits and medications. But the bottom line was that he still found enjoyment in life. Was the choice to put him down for our wellbeing or for his?
Health professionals and loved ones struggle with these same questions when caring for those nearing the end of life. Sierra’s decline came at a poignant time, one in which many are fighting for the right to choose death in the face of terminal illness or suffering. Currently, five states allow those with a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months to end their life with the help of a physician, also known as “medical aid in dying.” Canada legalized physician-assisted death in 2016, joining a small number of countries that have laws enabling this practice.
The principle behind these laws is relatively simple. People want to die with dignity, and in the process of fighting for the right to do so, they’ve ironically improved end-of-life care. As a free nation that claims to be a leader in health care, why have we not adopted this practice? While poking fun at “the land of the free,” Jim Jeffries, an Australian comedian known for his outsider political commentary, pointed out that “assisted suicide for the sick … is the biggest freedom of them all.”
Opposition to physician-assisted death comes from both the public and from within the medical profession itself. Deeply rooted societal ideals, values and norms fuel the debate. From day one, physicians take an oath to “do no harm.” Common sense tells us that healthcare professionals are supposed to help heal the sick, not to “help” them die. Furthermore, for some patients, taking one’s life goes against their religious values and/or our fundamental values as human beings. Also, many families find that loved ones nearing the end of life are often incapable of making well informed decisions due to fear, depression or the effects of disease on their mind. And so we choose life, even when death seems so near.
Despite the moral controversy, attempts have been made at giving patients the right to take control of their own death in the United States. Numerous court cases have brought the legality of this practice into light culminating in the 2006 Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Oregon. Under this ruling, the federal government failed to prohibit physicians in Oregon from prescribing drugs to help patients die, opening the door for states to legalize medical aid in dying. Organizations such as the Death with Dignity National Center have taken it upon themselves to both educate the public on end-of-life options and to advocate for physician-assisted death. Even so, there has been little done to legalize this practice in federal law.
Lawmakers took a step in the right direction during discussions about health care reform and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The misleadingly-termed “death panels” were a way to incentivize physicians to have discussions about end-of-life care with their patients. Unfortunately, this section of the ACA was thrown out due to political controversy. Finally, in 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services approved regulations that allow qualified healthcare professionals to be reimbursed for providing advance care planning to patients. Still, moral and legal barriers persist, preventing patients from making the decision that is right for them.
Looking back, I am grateful that Sierra left us when he did. Choosing to put him down was not easy, but afterwards, I came to an important realization. By choosing death at that moment, we determined when, where and how he died. We chose a period when our family was home together so that we could spend quality time with each other in his last moments. This pronounced the end of our living relationship, giving us a sense of completion. We made sure that he died with us, in a peaceful environment, around those he loved instead of alone on the kitchen floor. He was able to leave the world peacefully and quietly without the suffering of a drawn out painful death that would taint our memory of his long and happy life. Sometimes, I wonder if the groan he let out at the end was a sigh of relief, a goodbye or even a thank you.