End of Life Care and Death with Dignity Law Discussion Planned

BERLIN — Linda Waite-Simpson, statewide director of Compassion and Choices, the not-for-profit organization that supports access to — and greater public understanding of —Vermont’s “Death with Dignity” law, will lead a conversation about “End of Life Care Services and Vermont’s Death with Dignity Law” on Tuesday evening, April 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice, 600 Granger Rd. in Berlin.

In addition to her role as statewide director of Compassion and Choices, Waite-Simpson played an active role as a three-term member of the Vermont House who sat on the House Judiciary Committee in winning passage of Act 39, better known as the “Death with Dignity” law. In a press release announcing the April 11 public presentation, Waite-Simpson was described as the House Judiciary Committee’s “voice on the floor,” as the “Aid in Dying” bill was working through the legislative process. That bill was passed by the Vermont General Assembly in May 2013 and signed into law by then Gov. Peter Shumlin.

In a recent phone conversation with The Bridge, Waite-Simpson took great pains to describe what Vermont’s Death with Dignity (Patient Choice and Control at End of Life) law both is and is not.

“The bar is high,” she said. “We don’t want people to feel they are coerced. This is a process that happens in a doctor’s office. It’s a conversation with a doctor about how life should end.”

What’s more it is the patient who does the asking. “It has to be a voluntary request,” she said. The patient “must have the mental capacity to make such decisions.” Waite-Simpson also said that patients “have to be able to self-administer the drugs. It’s different from euthanasia. It is entirely in the patient’s control.”

She went on to emphasize the careful process. “There’s a lot more,” she said. “A physician has to have another physician confirm the diagnosis.” A patient must be an adult resident of the State of Vermont who has been determined to be within six months of what a physician believes will be a terminal death.

Waite-Simpson talked about Vermonters who are sometimes alone, isolated and with few if any supports in their lives. “They would likely not be good candidates for this law,” she said.

While she agreed that some seniors are marginalized and neglected, Act 39 is for people facing a terminal illness who ask on their own, and ask not once but twice. “If someone says they are afraid of physical suffering, we ask how we can help them,” Waite-Simpson said. On the other hand, she agreed that, “Some diseases at the end are truly horrendous.”

As part of her presentation on April 11, sponsored by the Central Vermont Cancer Survivor Potluck Group (which includes people living with cancer and their caregivers), Waite-Simpson will discuss the recent death of Monique Van de Ven, who died peacefully in Vermont on Jan. 27 after taking the aid-in-dying prescription obtained through the Act 39 process.

While Van de Ven was ultimately able to get a physician to write the prescription for her death, finding that doctor was not easy. In fact, it was “stressful and difficult.”

The Death with Dignity law and the situation that faced Monique Van de Ven are to be discussed at the April 11 public presentation at Central Vermont Health and Hospice.