OMC OKs Death with Dignity discussions

Terminally ill patients with less than six months to live now can receive Death with Dignity information from employees of Olympic Medical Center and its satellite clinics.

Patients may not, however, commit doctor-assisted suicides on OMC premises.

Hospital commissioners on June 3, despite pleas to leave their earlier ban on Death with Dignity in place, adopted the compromise position by a vote of 5-1.

Supporting the change

were commissioners Jim Cammack - who moved to amend the policy - John Nutter - who seconded it - Arlene Engel, John Beitzel and president Jim Leskinovitch.

Saying she refused to compromise her beliefs "just because someone says it is the law," commissioner Jean Hordyk voted no.

The vote climaxed another night of appeals from proponents and opponents of Death with Dignity, which was passed into law last November by 60 percent of voting Washingtonians.

The Rev. Thomas Nathe, pastor of Queen of Angels Church, predicted that passage would make OMC "a battleground" between right-to-life advocates and backers of Initiative 1000.

Nathe later told the Sequim Gazette his reference was to divisiveness among OMC employees and a loss of goodwill for the hospital.

He does not plan to seek a boycott of donations to OMC or a protest demonstration.

"I don't foresee myself going any further with this," he said.

However, he told the Gazette he deplored what he called "the creeping culture of death."

"Granting a license to kill the voiceless and the infirm is morally wrong," Nathe said.

And after the decision, Dr. Robert Craven of Port Angeles told Leskinovitch that "you have blood on your hands."



In the end, though, commissioners gave the most weight to fears that banning discussion of doctor-assisted suicide violated the relationship between doctors and patients.

Last Wednesday's vote allows caregivers to answer patients' questions about the Death with Dignity requirements that a participant be certified as mentally competent and terminally ill with less than six months to live.

OMC physicians may go as far as writing prescriptions for the lethal doses of drugs, although the hospital pharmacy cannot fill them under provisions of the law.

Fresh in the minds of all at the meeting was the death of Linda Fleming of Sequim, who died May 21 after self-administering a lethal dose of drugs prescribed for her under the new law.

What commissioners and speakers probably didn't know was that another person that day had become the second Washingtonian to do so, according to Compassion & Choices, a Seattle-based advocacy and support group that gave no further details.

The commissioners' dilemma began March 4 when they received three alternative resolutions:

_ Permit full participation in Death with Dignity

_ Participate only up to the point of self-administration

_ Ban Death with Dignity altogether from OMC.

After more than a score of citizens testified - most supporting the ban - commissioners took the third choice, with Leskinovitch, Engel, Cammack and Hordyk in the majority and former commissioner Gary Smith and Beitzel voting no.

On May 20, Death with Dignity backers rallied from the March 4 meeting and urged commissioners to reconsider their decision.

Leskinovitch promised to do so and fulfilled his pledge last Wednesday.

Most speakers opposed

The audience had seesawed back to mostly opponents of doctor-assisted suicide, who outnumbered proponents 14-5.

Craven called invoking the doctor-patient relationship "spurious" and said, "When you're caring for a patient, you can't have it both ways - to comfort yet to kill."

Will Stevenson of Port Angeles said he feared Death with Dignity would become "a snowball."

"People are going to be under pressure to end it (life) this way."

And Yvonne Doughty of Port Angeles recalled relatives' passing away.

"It's a wonderful thing to bring a family together to share those last times."

Countering them was Alan Thomas of Joyce, a recent OMC patient:

"The Death with Dignity Act is not about the right of others to dictate my end. OMC needs to be supporting patients, not ideologies."

Vicki Rudin of Port Angeles summed up the choice this way:

"Are you tying their (doctors') hands or are you going to enable them to do what they think is right on behalf of a patient?"

And Penney Van Vleet of Sequim reminded commissioners that the act requires no one to participate in a doctor-assisted suicide.



Commissioners then spoke to the issue. Cammack, retired owner of Jim's Pharmacy in Port Angeles, said he long had been aware that "we've had people in this community taking their own lives for many years.

"I don't condemn it. I don't condone it."

He issued a plea for a publicly supported hospice house for terminally ill persons.

Engel, who said she was "pushing 90 years old and am looking forward to someday crossing the bar," added her support for a hospice.

As for self-administered suicide at OMC, "I don't think a house of healing should be a house of ending somebody's life."

However, said Beitzel, "death is part of what goes on at a hospital."

Permitting discussing Death with Dignity while prohibiting the actual death on OMC premises was "a compromise I could live with," he said.

Nutter said commissioners could control some activities at OMC but not what a doctor could tell a patient.

Furthermore, he said, "it's not for this board to take on a religious debate."

Speaking last, Leskinovitch agreed:

"We never intended to get in between the doctor-patient relationship. This is between the patient and the doctor."

Leskinovitch has filed to run to retain his position, as have Cammack, Nutter and Engel.

Retired physician John Miles, former president of the Olympic Peninsula Humane Society, has filed for the position that Smith left. Phil Edin of Port Angeles also will seek that seat.

The other OMC commission seats up for election Nov. 2 are held by Engel, Cammack, Hordyk and Nutter, who was appointed last month to replace resigned commissioner Cindy Witham.

The board has yet to appoint Smith's replacement, who also would be obligated to run to retain his or her position.

Jim Casey is the editor of the Sequim Gazette. Reach him at jcasey@sequim

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