I was finishing up breakfast in New York when my dad sent me a text message. He was ready to die, and he needed me to help.
The request left me shaken, but that’s different than saying it came as a shock. I’d begun to grasp that something was really wrong 10 months before, in May 2019, when he’d come to California from Maine. He was there to meet his first granddaughter, Fern, to whom I’d recently given birth. But he couldn’t bend down to pick her up. He was having trouble walking, and he spoke of the future in uncharacteristically dark terms. We’d traveled to see him in Maine four times since then, and each time he’d looked older: his face more gaunt, his frame more frail.
At first, he’d walk the short distance to go to the bathroom. Then he needed someone to help him stand and use a portable urinal. Where once we’d all gather around the candlelit dinner table to eat, a ritual on which he’d always insisted, he now sat with a plate in front of the television. Eventually he started sleeping in a mechanical hospital bed on the first floor so he could avoid the stairs. He refused the wheelchair and walker, and kept falling as a result. I hated my growing hesitancy to place Fern in his lap, but sensed his fear of dropping her.
By the time my dad texted me, on March 12, 2020, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable illness also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, had ravaged the 75-year-old body to which he’d so diligently tended—the body of a disciplined athlete and restless traveler who’d run 18 marathons, summited mountains across North America, and navigated remote stretches of Africa. It felt both cruel and kind that his “condition,” as he called it, spared his mind—the mind he’d used to become a Harvard-trained epidemiologist, preach the power of public policy, recite William Wordsworth from memory, and extemporize about Rousseau, Marx, and Krishnamurti. ALS had robbed him of his most prized ideals, independence and freedom, and trapped him in a brown leather recliner in his girlfriend’s living room. He was staring down quadriplegia. Ronald David Deprez had had enough.
I had come to New York with Fern and my husband, Alex. It was an absurd time to travel there: Coronavirus case numbers had begun to spike, and the city was shutting down, leaving the streets eerily empty. But I had work to do and plans to go see my dad afterward. I’d feared the pandemic might soon ground domestic air travel, stranding me across the country from him for who knew how long.
Maine had only recently legalized medical aid in dying, allowing people with terminal illnesses and a prognosis of six remaining months or less to obtain life-ending drugs via prescription. In April my dad became the second Mainer to make use of the new law.
He’d always said he’d sooner disappear into the woods with his Glock than end up on a ventilator or a feeding tube, alone in an institution. The law provided a more palatable path. Opponents call this method of dying, which is now legal in eight other states and Washington, D.C., physician-assisted suicide. Advocates prefer the term death with dignity. It’s an extreme act, not suited to most people. But it sits at the outer edge of a continuum of health-care options that allow people to retain control over how and when their lives might best end. And for the majority of Americans—who surveys show would, if faced with terminal illness, prefer to forgo aggressive interventions and die at home—more alternatives exist along that continuum than ever before.
The second-youngest of four children, my dad was raised primarily by his mother, who worked as a hotel chambermaid. After co-captaining his college football team, he went on to found public-health research and consulting firm and a nonprofit. He became an amateur photographer, expert cook, and self-described Buddhist. He could wire a house, tile a floor, bag a duck, skin a deer, ride a motorcycle, and helm a boat. His life testified to the notion that if you work hard enough, you can do just about anything.
Then came ALS, a force he couldn’t bend to his will. The disease would cause his nerve cells to degenerate and die, turning his muscles to mush and depriving his brain of the ability to voluntarily control the movements involved in talking and swallowing. He’d lose his ability to walk and grow prone to choking, labored breathing, and pneumonia. He’d be dead within three years of the onset of symptoms, maybe five, after his body suffocated itself.
He wasn’t going to beat ALS. No one does. But neither was he willing to let it beat him.
Perhaps there’d been early indicators, easy to dismiss in the moment. While hiking with my husband in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains in 2013, Dad wobbled precariously on the boulder-strewn trails. During a trip he and I took to Beirut and Cairo in 2017, painful cramps wracked his legs in the night. That winter, walking across the parking lot after a day of skiing in the Sierra Nevada, a spill left him splayed out on the asphalt amid his gear.
Neurologists at Massachusetts General Hospital were the first to suggest ALS, in the summer of 2018. Dad refused to follow up as recommended, didn’t share the news for many months, and brushed it off when he did. Instead, he convinced himself and us that orthopedic surgeries would help him overcome what he cast as the typical fate of an aging athlete. But a knee replacement in September 2018 failed to improve his balance. Neck surgery in March 2019 didn’t halt the weakening and atrophying of his right arm, left him perpetually exhausted, and set in motion a downward spiral.
Back in the 1970s, when my dad embodied his progressive politics with a full head of curly brown hair and a bushy mustache, he helped craft health policy inside the halls of Maine’s statehouse. Decades later, within days of his neck surgery, lawmakers there proposed a radical shift in the state’s approach to life’s end: the Maine Death with Dignity Act. At least seven similar attempts since 1995 had failed. This one passed, by a single vote, making Maine the ninth state where assisted death is legal. (Oregon was the first, in 1994.) The timing proved propitious for my dad, its approval and implementation unfolding as he inched closer to needing it.
He was born in 1944, part of a generation that experienced waves of scientific progress and technological breakthroughs that have enabled people to overcome acute diseases and manage chronic conditions. These advances have allowed people to live longer, making those 65 and older a larger share of the population than at any point in history.
A health-care system designed to prolong life at whatever cost, however, often fails to let it end. “We’re giving people interventions they don’t want and treatments that are painful and make them lose control over their own destiny and well-being at end of life,” Laura Carstensen, who teaches psychology and public policy at Stanford and is the founding director of its Center on Longevity, told me. “And with Medicare costs soaring, we’re going broke along the way.” This last point is true not just as a matter of government budgets, but on the personal level as well. As Atul Gawande wrote in his 2014 book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, “More than half of the elderly in long-term care facilities run through their entire savings and have to go on government assistance—welfare—to be able to afford it.”
The pandemic has forced people to confront and consider death on a daily basis. Experts such as Carstensen say that’s not all bad: Conversations about dying and disease and end-of-life care can be uncomfortable, but research shows that they make it more likely for people to die in ways that honor their wishes, save money, and soften the heartache for those left behind.
The idea that patients should have a say in their own end-of-life medical care has been fought over for decades. Like many his age, my dad had signed a legal document spelling out his wishes that health-care providers withhold life-prolonging treatment such as artificial nutrition or hydration should he become irreversibly incapacitated. The first such document wasn’t proposed until 1967, and it would be decades before directives of that nature gained prominence and legal recognition nationwide. Only after Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act in 1990 were hospitals and other providers required to inform patients of their rights under state law to make decisions concerning their medical care, including the right to refuse treatment. That same year, in its first right-to-die case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a competent person has a constitutional right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition. The court later decided that the Constitution doesn’t ensure the right to an assisted death, but it left states to make their own laws.
Assisted-dying laws go beyond the right to die passively by refusing food, water, and care. They allow people like my dad to proactively hasten the end. Some 71 million Americans, or 1 in 5, now live in states where assisted death is possible. While the number of people using the laws has grown over time, their ranks are still small: fewer than 4,500 cumulatively, according to data compiled by the advocacy group Death with Dignity National Center. In 2019, 405 died this way in California, the state with the highest number that year.
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