Op-EdOpinion

D.C. Council, Mayor Must Support Death with Dignity Act

I live with three cancer diagnoses. I am a physician, so I fully comprehend what this deadly disease can do to a person.

I will never forget one of my best doctor friends, who was dying from uterine cancer and breast cancer. She looked at me as I was trying to comfort her one day, and she said: “This is taking too long.”

Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with this kind of agonizing dying experience during my long career as an internist and endocrinologist. I graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1967 and I have taught and practiced medicine in the District of Columbia for over 45 years. I trained as an intern at the Veterans Administration in 1967 with the first group, and subsequently became a member of the division of endocrinology as the assistant chief and taught students, interns, and residents from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where I became a professor of medicine. I serve on several boards of directors.

I have seen palliative care and hospice programs provide extraordinary care to patients. They work wonders for many dying people and their loved ones. But there are times even the best palliative care cannot alleviate pain and suffering. Patients may suffer from physical and emotional pain, from a loss of autonomy, and from an inability to engage in enjoyable activities. These issues are legitimate.

That is why, as a physician and as a patient, I urge members of the D.C. Council to vote yes on the Death with Dignity Act, and I call on Mayor Muriel Bowser to approve it. This bill would authorize doctors to write a prescription for medication for mentally capable, terminally ill adults who request it, so they can decide whether to take it to end unbearable suffering, by dying peacefully in their sleep, at home, surrounded by their loved ones.

I love my work … and my life.

But if the time comes that I have no hope for a cure and my suffering becomes unbearable, I would want physician medical aid in dying as an option for myself, and for the sake of my loved ones.

I believe a medical aid-in-dying option would be consistent with the Hippocratic Oath, an oath that I have taken. Though medicine has changed dramatically in the 2,500 or so years since Hippocrates, the concept remains valid today: Do what is right for the patient.

For those individuals who have terminal illnesses and are experiencing physical pain and emotional suffering, we doctors should be able to give them relief from that suffering. If a mentally capable adult who is dying wishes to end their life, in a controlled and reassuring manner, with family and friends around them, medical aid in dying should be an option.

The data from Oregon, where medical aid in dying has been practiced for nearly 20 years, show that over 90 percent of patients who use it are already in hospice, but with their suffering clearly not alleviated. The data also show that one-third of people who get the prescription never take it, but they get a real emotional benefit from simply having the medication in hand: they experience a sense of relief, a reduction of fear, and a peace of mind.

Providing that kind of psychological relief is also doing the right thing for our patients.

Medical aid in dying is one option among several that can be available to people facing a terminal prognosis of six months or less to live. It is a humane and compassionate option, and it is an option those of us who live in the District of Columbia deserve.

Dr. Omega Silva was the first woman president of the Howard University Medical Alumni Association and is former president of the American Medical Women’s Association, which supports medical aid in dying.

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