Dying with dignity in Washington

Right-to-die laws have become a national talking point ever since the country met Brittany Maynard – the 29-year-old, terminally ill woman who ended her own life Saturday.

Maynard was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year and, in April, was given six months to live. She, her husband and her mother moved from to Portland from Northern California so Maynard could take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.

Oregon was the first state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient of sound mind who makes the request. Four other states — Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico — followed suit and now allow patients to seek help to die.

Washington’s Death with Dignity Act was passed in November 2008 and went into effect in March 2009. Under the law, terminally ill patients with less than six months to live can request lethal doses of medication from medical and osteopathic physicians.

Here’s the breakdown of participants and deaths since the law went into effect in 2009:

– 2009: 65 participants, 64 deaths.

– 2010: 87 participants, 85 deaths.

– 2011: 103 participants, 101 deaths.

– 2012: 121 participants, 116 deaths.

– 2013: 173 participants, 159 deaths.

The state Department of Health tracks those who participate in the act, that is, someone to whom medication was dispensed under the terms of the law. The state collects data about the person – age, gender, underlying illness, marital status, education, race, insurance status, residence – and tracks whether the participant ingests the medicine and whether he or she has died.

I pulled up the state’s 2013 Death with Dignity Act report for the latest numbers in Washington.

In 2013, medication was dispensed to 173 people. Of those, 159 are known to have died – 119 died after ingesting the medication, 26 died without ingesting the medication and 14 died with an unknown ingestion status.

For the remaining 14 people who participated in the program, the state received no documentation that indicates death occurred.

Here are some more facts about the participants who died in 2013:

– They ranged in age from 29 to 95 years old.

– 96 percent lived west of the Cascades.

– 77 percent had cancer.

-15 percent had neuro-degenerative disease, including ALS.

– 97 percent were white.

– 52 percent were married.

– 76 percent had at least some college education.

– 89 percent died less than 25 weeks after their first request for the medication.

– 84 percent died at home.

– 86 percent were enrolled in hospice at the time of death.

– 67 percent were unconscious within 10 minutes of ingesting the drugs.

– 76 percent died within 90 minutes of ingestion.

– None of the participants called for emergency medical services intervention after ingesting the drugs.

The people who participated in the program reported a range of end-of-life concerns, including losing autonomy (91 percent), being less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable (89 percent), loss of dignity (79 percent), burden on family, friends and caregivers (61 percent), and inadequate pain control (36 percent).

Marissa Harshman

Marissa Harshman

I'm the health reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. I started at The Columbian -- my hometown newspaper -- in September 2009. Reach me at marissa.harshman@columbian.com or 360-735-4546.

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