SLO medical community won’t help terminally ill patients like me die with dignity

Christine and Tom Whaley
Christine and Tom Whaley

On June 16, dying Californians like me breathed a sigh of relief when we learned that a suspended healthcare law had been reinstated that gives us the option to end our needless suffering and die peacefully.

That’s when a California appeals court granted emergency motions by two terminally ill adults and a physician represented by Compassion & Choices to immediately suspend a lower court’s judgment invalidating the End of Life Option Act on a technicality pending further review of the case (see ruling at The lower court ruled the Legislature violated the state Constitution by passing the law during a special session on healthcare, even though Gov. Brown had the constitutional authority to call the special session and signed this healthcare bill into law.

The bad news is a higher court could decide to invalidate the law in the future.

Similar to laws in Washington, D.C. and six states, the California End of Life Option Act gives mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live the option to request prescription medication they can decide to take to end unbearable suffering and die peacefully in their sleep.

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At age 42, I am too young to die and I have done everything in my power to stay alive. I love my life, my husband, Tom, my baby brother, Dane, and my mother, Diana. But they support my decision to want this option because my terminal condition is incurable and I am likely to die in agony without this option.

I was diagnosed with terminal melanoma on the back of my neck in October 2012 when I was just 36.

Due to the aggressive nature of my cancer and the side effects of treatment, my surgeon, followed by my oncologist, deemed me unable to work in my jobs as a massage therapist and bartender in October 2012. Test result days were a brand new type of stressor. Aside from that, visits from the couch to the bathroom and back became my new “work day.“

Since my melanoma diagnosis, I have undergone more than five years of various treatments. In the beginning my team and I started with promising new immunotherapies. I pressed for advancing our knowledge by participating in a (now FDA approved) drug trial. Whenever the cancer grew, my doctors would propose a new course of treatment.

I am otherwise healthy and strong. I wanted to take the heavy challenges (doing two treatments at once, radiation right after surgery, etc.) anything that might help the melanoma fight, so an older or weaker patient might benefit from my experience.

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Two years ago, my disease progressed to my brain. Surgery was performed on the first of what would become several brain tumors. The first tumor announced itself by giving me a seizure. It was the size of a golf ball and we happily cut it out. Then I did a course of radiation, four brain Gamma Knife surgeries (Gamma Knife surgery actually is radiation therapy used to treat tumors, but unlike traditional brain surgery, no incision is made to minimize damage to healthy tissues), followed by three types of chemotherapy in hopes of eradicating any cancer in the brain. Everything but the kitchen sink.

Unfortunately, the cancer continues to grow in my brain. It has also spread to my buttocks, lower back, lungs and I have a baseball-sized tumor on the side of my head that has infiltrated the skull, my right ear canal, my throat and it shares fluids with my brain. This renders my tumor inoperable and untreatable.

I became eligible several weeks ago for a prescription for medical aid in dying because my prognosis to live is six months or less (three to six months). Without the prescription, the tumor in my throat will likely tighten my airway, suffocating me. It’s scary. It’s terrifying.

I originally requested a prescription for medical aid in dying at Dignity Health’s French Medical Hospital Center, but since it is part of a Catholic healthcare system, it prohibits any doctor affiliated with it from prescribing medical aid in dying, even in their private offices outside the grounds of its facilities.

I was shocked to find that obtaining this prescription was going to be so difficult if my own doctor was not allowed to practice medical aid in dying. I called numerous doctors and hospice services to try and find a way to obtain a legal prescription before I found a medical provider in Los Angeles: UCLA. That is a long way to go, nearly 200 miles, for someone as ill as I am today.

I pray the courts settle this case quickly because dying people suffer enough stress as it is. They shouldn’t have to worry about suffering needlessly when they die when there is a peaceful remedy — medical aid in dying — to prevent it.

Christine Whaley and her husband, Tom Whaley, live in San Luis Obispo.