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The Cost Of Death With Dignity

Lillian Rudensey and her son Lyle
Lyle Rudensey
Lillian Rudensey and her son Lyle

People who use Oregonand Washington’s Death with Dignity laws have, for years, used a high dose of sleeping pills to end their lives. But that medication has skyrocketed in price over the last year. KLCC’s Rachael McDonald has this personal perspective of a family member choosing to end their life.

Lillian Rudensey and her son Lyle
Credit Lyle Rudensey
Lillian Rudensey and her son Lyle

My 98-year old great-aunt, Lillian, used Washington’s aid in dying law last month. After a long and active life, she suffered from congestive heart failure and other complications that caused severe pain and discomfort. Her son, Lyle Rudensey, is in Seattle.

Rudensey: “I guess she was physically very uncomfortable. She was in pain from trying to get up to go to the bathroom. There was sharp knifing pains.”

Lyle says Lillian felt she was in too much pain to go on. She got two doctors to testify to the fact that she had 6 months or less to live and that she was choosing to die of her own free will.  

That’s required under Washington and Oregon’s Death with Dignity laws.

But, seconal, the drug that is usually prescribed for aid in dying, costs up to $3,500 for a lethal dose. Lillian was shocked.

Rudensey: “At first, she was pretty outraged by that pricetag.”

Lyle says Lillian’s insurance did not cover the medication. She decided to pay the full price. Lillian died on Friday March 25th surrounded by family. Volunteers from End of Life Washington were there to administer the drug. Lyle says it took a few minutes for Lillian to fall asleep. She passed quietly about 45 minutes later.

Rudensey: “It felt right. It wasn’t easy for me, in some ways, it’s sort of a strange feeling to be helping my mom die but at the same time it was clearly what she wanted. She was clearly miserable. There wasn’t really anything that could be done beyond some kind of major procedure that she didn’t want.”

Washington’s Death with Dignity law was modeled after Oregon—the first state in the nation to legalize aid in dying. George Eighmey is president of the national Death with Dignity Center in Portland. Eighmey helped get Oregon’s law passed in 1998.

Eighmey:  “I am very passionate about this. I believe that people do have the right. That there are many, many people who are facing imminent death who want this as an option.”

Eighmey was disappointed when he found out the drug company Valeant had boosted the price of seconal. He says it’s been around for decades and is no longer under patent or in development.

Eighmey: “When people are facing death the one thing they shouldn’t have to worry about if they’re considering this as an option is the exorbitant price that they have to pay.”

Valeant is currently under Senate investigation for price gauging.

Eighmey says there are alternative medications available. One is a mixture developed by Washington doctors that costs about 500 dollars. He says it’s more unpleasant to swallow than seconal.

California’s aid in dying law will take effect in June, so more people will be seeking legal end of life. In Oregon, about a third of people who get a prescription for doctor assisted suicide don't actually use it. Still, Eighmey says, having the option has a palliative affect for people suffering from terminal illness.

Eighmey: “It gives them comfort knowing that if worst comes to worst this is available to them.”

My cousin, Lyle says he’s glad his 98-year old mom had the choice.

Rudensey: “She was able to take control of her death. And that she was able to say goodbye to us and we could say goodbye to her. It felt right. It felt like really our only option at that point and I was glad that she had it.”

Here's a video of Lillian and Lyle playing pingpong a couple of years ago:

Compassion and Choices of Oregon

Physicians for Compassionate Care  opposes aid-in-dying laws and was against Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

Copyright 2016 KLCC

Rachael McDonald is KLCC's All Things Considered host. She also reports on a variety of topics including local government, education, and breaking news.