How to Die in Oregon and the Controversial Act of Dying with Dignity

How to Die in Oregon and the Controversial Act of Dying with Dignity July 25, 2016

HBO Documentary Films
HBO Documentary Films

“Thinking and talking about death need not be morbid; they may be quite the opposite.
 Ignorance and fear of death overshadow life, while knowing and accepting death erases this shadow.” ~Lily Pincus

The thought of dying often evokes fear and apprehension in people, and remains a subject that most people would altogether rather avoid talking about.

Considering the fact that we now live in the era of technology, the discussion surrounding end of life issues has been placed in the forefront. Due to advances in medicine and technology, dying has become a process that takes much longer than in the past. This progress has simultaneously complicated our choices and birthed a new choice.
Dying with dignity.

“On October 27, 1997 Oregon enacted the Death with Dignity Act which allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.”

With only Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands having practiced legalized death with dignity, “How To Die In Oregon” takes an intimate look at the state’s battle with the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, and how someone who is terminally ill decides where and when to end their life by lethal overdose.

The documentary opens with Sue Porter, a volunteer from Compassion and Choices, as she arrives at the home of a terminally ill man who has decided to utilize the Death with Dignity Act to end his life.

As the lethal dose is prepared, Ms. Porter reminds the gentleman, “You have the right to change your mind,” and immediately asked, “Do you understand what this medication will do?” The gentleman clearly understands what he wants to do and responds, “It will kill me and make me happy.” He is then given the drink that is comprised of lethal medicine. He holds the drink in his hands, swallows the drink and quietly lies down on the bed.

Within a matter of minutes he begins to drift off to sleep, and his choice to end his life on his own terms has come to fruition.

How to Die in Oregon, directed by Peter Richardson, is a powerfully emotional account of what happens when the patient, the family and the physician navigate the choice to make preparations to die with dignity. The documentary is emotionally compassionate, evoking tears from even the most discerning viewer, and painstakingly compelling as you watch the individuals deal with the intricacies of their choice to die with dignity, and the questions that arise as a result of that choice:

How do you know when it’s time?
What do you do with the time you have left?
How do you say goodbye to your family and friends?

Among the stories that the film tells is of Cody Curtis, a 54 year-old wife and mother, who suffers heroically through a roller coaster of emotions and on-again, off-again symptoms stemming from cancer of the liver, symptoms as debilitating as they are humiliating. After initial surgery seems successful, the cancer returns, prompting Curtis to legally obtain the lethal barbiturates to hold “in reserve” as a final option.

Given six months to live, Curtis chooses a date, May 25th, when she will end her life.

During this period, we see Curtis spending time with her family and at one point, trying to determine why and how she could be feeling better, as she has lived beyond the six-month period.

In the midst of debilitating pain that seemed to come and go at any time, Cody looks beautiful. Her skin is smooth and tan, with timeless gray hair surrounding her face. However, amidst the radiance of her smile, there remained an ever- present vulnerability and each time she cried, we understood why.

Throughout each moment you could not help to feel love and compassion for Curtis, her family, the doctor and each person faced with making such a choice; not a feeling of wanting the cancer to go away, but instead a feeling of connectedness to another human being who is in pain but has accepted what is eminent.

At this point, there is a fleeting moment of hope that the situation may turn around. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
After a few months, her condition takes turn for the worse and Curtis decides not to undergo further surgery. Curtis decides she does not want to experience further pain, nor confront the possibility of not being able to walk, or become a burden on her family. The acceptance that there were “no good options” for treatment lead Curtis to the final decision to schedule the time with her oncologist to take the lethal dose.

“In addition, the documentary profiles Randy Stroup, a 53 year-old uninsured Oregonian with prostate cancer, who is outraged when he is denied health care by the state and offered doctor-assisted suicide instead. Ultimately, the state reverses its position when Stroup goes public with his story, but the chemotherapy treatment does not save his life.”

Alternately to those who choose to utilize death with dignity, we also meet Nancy Niedzielski who campaigned on behalf of her deceased husband, Randy, to get the law enacted in the state of Washington. Nancy witnessed the unyielding discomfort and pain her husband experienced while dying from brain and spinal cancer. Randy’s final request to Nancy was that she find a way to get the law passed in their home state.

“How to Die in Oregon” is by no means an easy film to watch.

From the beginning, you feel a range of emotions that will encompass profound sympathy as you witness what is taking place, and anger that some have undergone such needless pain and suffering. However, I also found that I felt regret for having wasted so much of my time worrying, or being angry about such frivolous things.

Whether you believe that:

“Life is sacred and no one has the right to usurp the role of God in ending it. 
Everything is for a reason, and we must figure out what the reason is.”

“No one should abandon a loved one.”

“Voting for this measure could tempt some members of society, including 
inheritance-hungry relatives and exhausted family care-givers, to disregard 
the dying by not only supporting but even encouraging premature death.”

Originally aired on HBO Documentary Films, “How to Die in Oregon” does not try to influence your opinion either way. It does, however, allow you to witness the profoundly impactful act the individuals undergo as they decide to take life-ending medication.



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