Hospital still struggles over Death With Dignity

Whidbey General hospital’s inconclusive response to Initiative 1000 has not gone unnoticed by the community.

“I think they decided to take the softest, easiest approach with the sole purpose of downplaying it,” Lee Sher said.

The 84-year-old Oak Harbor resident lost his wife to Lou Gehrig’s Disease five years ago. The couple considered moving to Oregon because of its “Death with Dignity Act”; however, the law requires participants to have Oregon state residency.

Ultimately, Sher said, his wife decided Death with Dignity was not for her because of moral reasons. But he’s OK with the act “if it meets the specific person’s needs.”

“I’d probably go for it,” Sher said, if he was ever faced with a terminal illness and the circumstances were right.

At their most recent meeting, the Whidbey General Hospital Board of Commissioners refused to acknowledge the elephant in the room - the newly enacted Death with Dignity Act.

“We’re not going to address that tonight. There are other committees addressing that issue,” Roger Case, board president, said. “It’s a practice issue, not a committee issue.”

According to Case, the hospital is taking a “neutral” stance on the Death with Dignity Act, effectively refusing to decide on the issue, although the law went into effect March 5.

When asked if the hospital had “opted in” by default, Case disagreed.

“They can make all the rules they want, but we’re playing it neutral. Rules are just guidelines,” he said of the state’s newly-enacted, voter-approved Death with Dignity Act. “We’re still in evolution,” Case said of the hospital’s unfinished policy regarding the new law.

“Doctors will not be allowed to prescribe life-ending medications,” Case said of Whidbey General doctors. Case voted against the November initiative that passed by 58.8 percent in Island County.

Patients are barred from self-administering medication on hospital grounds, Case explained, therefore Death with Dignity cannot be offered at Whidbey General Hospital.

Terry Barnett, president of the board of directors of Compassion and Choices of Washington, said there is no such thing as a neutral position.

“They are, in effect, opting out,” he said.

If Whidbey General decides to formally opt out, they can still do so, he said, but they must provide a written notice to all doctors on staff.

And even if Whidbey General opts out, “their doctors may still participate off campus and after hours,” according to Barnett.

Family doctor Haigh Fox, who has practiced at Whidbey General for 10 years, voted for Death with Dignity, although he’d rather not prescribe a life-ending dose of medication to terminally ill patients.

“I hope that there will be some others who are willing,” he said.

Hospital commissioner Grethe Cammermeyer, owner and operator of Saratoga View Extended Family Adult Home near Langley, is in favor of a patient’s right to choose under the Death with Dignity guidelines.

“I have seen the agony of impending death and people feeling powerless,” she said.

Cammermeyer said the hospital is working on the policy, but everything is still up in the air.

“The hospital did not opt out when they had the opportunity, which does not mean they opted in,” she said. “The issue is that the physicians also have a right to choose.”

The hospital commissioners have not directly addressed the Death with Dignity Act since it was approved by votes in November.

“It’s layered and complex,” Trish Rose, hospital spokeswoman, said of the act.

The neutral policy was made after the Ethics Committee made a recommendation to the Quality Improvement Committee, which includes the quality medical director, chief nurse executive, director of quality and patient safety, hospital CEO and two other committee members, according to Rose.

But Rose was clear that, when it comes to administering the fatal injection, “It’s not going to be done at Whidbey General Hospital.”

When asked if the hospital plans to involve the island community in Death with Dignity policy planning, she responded, “We have gone to the community on a number of concerns and nobody comes. At this point it remains to be seen.”

Death act’s rules

Washington’s “Death with Dignity Act,” modeled after Oregon’s, includes stringent restrictions:

• The patient must be a resident of the state of Washington.

• Two doctors must certify that the patient has six months or less to live, and is mentally competent. If competence is in question, the patient must be evaluated by a mental health professional.

• The patient must be over 18, request the medication in writing and be able to self-administer the lethal dose.

• The request must be made in writing or on videotape on three occasions, with a minimum of 48 hours between the second and third request, according to

• A 15-day waiting period from the first request to the receipt of medication.

• Medication must be given directly to the patient and cannot be mailed.

Oregon facts

According to the state of Oregon:

• Forty-five physicians wrote 85 death drug prescriptions in 2007. Of these, 46 patients took the medication, 26 died of their underlying disease and 13 were alive at the end of 2007.

• Eighty percent of the participants were between 55 and 84 years of age.

• Ninety percent of the patients died at home and 88 percent were enrolled in hospice care.

• Since the DWDA was passed in 1997, 341 patients have died under the terms of the law.

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