New laws don’t always make an immediate impact, but that is not the case with the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act.
Since taking effect last summer, the aid-in-dying law has helped some 30 terminally ill New Mexicans leave this world in the manner of their choosing.
Last month, at a hearing of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, lawmakers learned what difference the law is making for New Mexicans at the end of their lives. Under the legislation, a patient must be an adult, a resident of New Mexico and mentally capable of making an informed decision about whether to obtain and self-administer a lethal dose of prescription drugs. Unofficial reports indicate seven or eight people each month are taking the opportunity to die with dignity. It’s happening around the state, in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Farmington, Gallup and Truth or Consequences.
As Dr. David R. Grube, national medical director for Compassion & Choices, told the committee, “This act is not really about people dying. It’s about dealing with intolerable terminal suffering, and so now in New Mexico, the same number of people will die but less of them will suffer.”
The story of two sisters told during the hearing brought home how suffering can be reduced.
Phyllis Bergman told the lawmakers about her two terminally ill sisters. One died three years ago in horrific pain, while the second was able to use the new law to end her life.
Bergman’s younger sister, Vicki Bergman Marks, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 67, underwent 11 months of chemotherapy, tried clinical trials and came to the conclusion that it was time to stop. She tried to use California’s medical aid-in-dying process, but the required two in-person visits proved overly arduous for a terminally ill woman who, at that point, weighed 85 pounds.
Too weak to make the second visit, Marks remained in New Mexico, where, her sister told lawmakers, “She spent her remaining days in a type of hell I would never wish on anyone. She died in pain and despair with her kids and her loving family feeling helpless by her side. The California law had failed us.”
For another sister, though, the New Mexico law did not fail.
That sister, Linda Bergman Sprague, 79, was diagnosed with cancer just nine days before the new law took effect. At Stage 4, the disease was in her pancreas, liver, lungs and her adrenal glands. Her conditioned worsened quickly, but her resolve to die on her own terms did not. A month after her initial diagnosis, Sprague died in her own bed, her family beside her. It was “peaceful, gentle, soft,” Bergman said.
Most of all, it was the end Sprague wanted, one denied to her sister. And their story illustrates why passing this law mattered. It gives individuals the right to decide their final chapters — and respects their decisions. Not all individuals will make the same choice. The law has protections built in to ensure a patient is terminal and mentally able to make this life-or-death choice. For dying individuals, being able to choose an exit strategy can be empowering.
Phyllis Bergman, who was with her two sisters at the end, put it best: “To help a dying person leave this world in a peaceful and painless way is one of the greatest gifts you can give.”