By Nancy Valko
In August, I wrote a blog “Physician-assisted Suicide and the Palliative Care Physician” about Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter, a palliative care doctor in California who approved of physician-assisted suicide, would want it for herself but still had some serious qualms about actually writing for the lethal overdose herself.
In the end, Dr. Zitter decides that assisted suicide can be rendered “safe” by being rare and practiced by specially trained medical practitioners as “just one tool in the toolbox of caring for the dying-a tool of last resort.”
Thus, Dr. Zitter, perhaps unknowingly, gives support to the Compassion and Choices goal of “normalizing” and “integrating” physician-assisted suicide into standard medical practice. Note their own description of their activities:
“We help clients with advance directives, local service referrals and pain and symptom management. We offer information on self-determined dying when appropriate and provide emotional support through a difficult time. We employ educational training programs, media outreach and online and print publications to change healthcare practice, inform policy-makers, influence public opinion and empower individuals. Compassion & Choices devotes itself to creative legal and legislative initiatives to secure comprehensive and compassionate options at the end of life.” (Emphasis added)
Now in her new article “De-Medicalizing Death,” Dr. Zitter is excited about a new University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Centers’ program where “only” 25% of patients went on to commit physician-assisted suicide after an “intake process…conducted by trained psychotherapists (psychologists and clinical social workers) instead of physicians.”
Ironically, current physician-assisted suicide laws tout the “safeguard” that “If, in the opinion of the attending physician or the consulting physician, a patient may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment, either physician shall refer the patient for counseling.” (Emphasis added)
But that only means evaluating a patient’s competence is required, not the diagnosable mental disorders that afflict more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide. Thus, it should not be surprising that only 3.8% of people using physician-assisted suicide in Oregon were even referred for psychiatric evaluation in 2016, unlike the standard of care for other suicidal people.
Also, the UCLA new intake process for physician-assisted suicide that so excites Dr. Zitter paradoxically undermines the common media depiction of a terminally ill person in unbearable pain desperate for immediate relief:
“The intake consisted of an extensive set of questionnaires designed to assess all possible sources of distress. Any patient with physical or psychiatric needs was referred on to the appropriate services. But as the UCLA committee expected, most of what patients needed was to discuss their feelings about their approaching death and process their grief and sense of loss. This mirrors data from the entire state of California as well as Oregon, which suggest that the distress prompting patients to request these lethal medications primarily stems from their fear over losing control at the end of life. It is not, as many may think, due primarily to physical suffering.” (Emphasis added)
“Anne Coscarelli, psychologist and founding director of the Simms/Mann–UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, described the conversations that came from this intake process as revelatory and comforting for the patients. Several patients ultimately completed legacy projects, such as video or written messages and stories, for their children and grandchildren. This invitation to talk, which opens up a discussion that most of us are taught to avoid, turned out to be a game-changer.” (Emphasis added)
And, I would add, this “game-changer” ultimately resulted in most patients NOT dying by assisted suicide.
As a former hospice and oncology nurse, this kind of listening and support is very familiar to me. We gave our patients such care along with symptom control and our patients died with real dignity with their families supported as well.
Personally, I was never even once tempted to help end any of my patients’ lives.
Dr. Zitter is like many people. The idea of controlling one’s own death or avoiding watching a loved one slowly die is very seductive. But, as Dr. Zitter has unwittingly discovered, suicide is the loneliest kind of death and very amenable to intervention.
On the other hand, the legalization and approval of physician-assisted suicide reinforces the underlying despair that leads even many healthy people to think death is the solution to their problems.
When “Losing autonomy” and being “Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable” are the top two end of life concerns of Oregon’s assisted suicide victims in 2016, we have a bigger societal problem than an alleged lack of enough lethal overdose prescriptions.
We need true caring and support, not abandonment to suicide of any kind.
Editor’s note. This appeared on Nancy’s blog and is reposted with permission.