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By Norris Burkes Jan 30 2022
As a hospice chaplain, I’ve had to come to grips with legislation passed in my home state of California called The End-of-Life (EOL) Option Act.
This law allows for terminally ill adults to request medication that will bring about their peaceful death. However, patients must be able to verbalize their request and they must be able to swallow the meds unassisted.
The law was months away from becoming active when I first visited Ruth, a 90-year-old hospice patient in Davis, Calif. Within a few minutes of entering her modest apartment, she tried dismissing me by claiming to be a life-long atheist.
I told her what I tell many patients: “I’m not here to persuade you, convert you or even baptize you. I’m here to be present with you through some tougher days.”
Ruth smiled at that, cementing something between us.
Over the next several weeks, she told me stories of how she’d raised two loving sons and made a good life for herself. However, she grew up in Hitler’s Germany and had legitimate reasons to doubt God’s existence. She’d seen the imprisonment of relatives and the death of countless Jews.
Her childhood had been harassed by hunger and haunted by grief. Yet somehow, she became a woman who showed little regret about her life.
On my third visit, shortly before the law would take effect, she told me of her plans to request the EOL medications.
“Would you,” Ruth stuttered, “could you, be there when I take the medications?”
“No,” I screamed in my head. “I won’t! I can’t.”
Fortunately, the law allows medical staff to follow their own conscience on this. I could say no and would not be penalized by my employer.
But — and this is where things get dicey — the legal wording expressly forbids medical staff to persuade or dissuade a patient in their EOL choices.
Instead of answering her straight away, I tried defusing the question.
“You know our hospice staff would really miss you if you did that. Everyone talks about how uplifted they are by their visits with you.”
Then, as if loading both barrels, she aimed a look at me.
“Yes,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s my job to encourage you. You must find your own reasons for living as I have my reasons for dying.”
Ruth was right, of course. Her path was different than mine. She had to make her own decision.
A moment of silence broke over our bedside chat like stillness over a mountain lake. Then Ruth repeated her question.
“So, will you be there when I end this life?”
Let me interrupt my narrative for a moment to ask my own question: “If you’d been in my size-12 shoes, what would you have told the woman?”
If your answer is a profound, “No way,” then I’d follow up with, “Why not?”
Consider what the woman was really asking.
I think she was saying, “I need to feel a kind presence. I need to know I’m not alone.”
When I realized that, I heard myself say, “Of course I’ll be there.”
In the matter of our life, and certainly our death, the only thing we all want to know is that we aren’t alone.
Not long after our conversation, Ruth woke up to her last day on earth and had breakfast with her sons. Then surrounded by family and hospice staff, she became our first hospice patient to end her life with medications.
She was never alone.
In the weeks and months that followed, our staff saw the truth of what she’d said — it wasn’t her job to inspire or encourage us.
Nevertheless, that truth never stopped us from celebrating her inspiring presence in our lives.
We will always remember you, Ruth.
Contact Chaplain Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.