Dying woman mulls options as Washington’s Death With Dignity Act takes effect

When doctors told Barbara McKay she would probably not live much longer, she began to think about how she would end her life. “I was very determined I was not going to allow myself to get to the point where I couldn't care for myself because I didn't want to put my family in that position,” the Kirkland resident recalled of when she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer seven years ago.

Barbara McKay

When doctors told Barbara McKay she would probably not live much longer, she began to think about how she would end her life.

“I was very determined I was not going to allow myself to get to the point where I couldn’t care for myself because I didn’t want to put my family in that position,” the Kirkland resident recalled of when she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer seven years ago.

McKay, 60, spoke with her family about her end-of-life choices, but knew when the time came she could not allow them to be with her because she didn’t want them to get in trouble for assisting her in any way.

So when Washington’s Death with Dignity Act took effect March 5, McKay was relieved.

The voter-approved initiative (I-1000), which models an Oregon act, allows doctors to prescribe lethal medication for a mentally competent adult with a terminal condition that is expected to be fatal within six months. The patient must self-administer the drugs.

Some opponents, who refer to the law as “physician-assisted suicide,” say that people facing death need caring and compassion, not lethal medication.

Others, such as Bellevue probate lawyer Theresa Schrempp, say there is no safeguard in the measure to protect patients from financial or elderly abuse. She is also concerned that there is no requirement of a witness at the time of death.

More than 400 people have ended their life under the Oregon initiative since it took effect in 1997.

McKay has publicly signed a letter to her physician indicating her wish to take life-ending medication if necessary and when she chooses, to help her achieve a “peaceful” and “gentle” death. Compassion & Choices of Washington, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better end-of-life care and choices, created the form to help patients start the conversation with physicians.

“With terminal illness, it’s difficult to be in a position where you don’t have control over your body,” said McKay.

She said she understands Death with Dignity is not for everybody and “everyone has opinions on what’s important to them.”

McKay’s husband and children have been supportive of her choice to die with dignity, which she fears could be soon.

After a two-year break from chemotherapy, McKay recently found out her tumors have tripled and spread to her lungs.

“I hope to live for many more years,” she said, “But when my time comes, I want to be able to choose my time and my way.”

Carrie Wood is editor of the Kirkland Reporter.

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