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After Sutherland announced her decision, and after her physician son and daughter took some extra time to come around to it, her family supported her.

Peggy Sutherland travelled frequently in her later years; here she visits with the Maasai in Kenya.
“We talked to our internist, because we didn’t know anything about assisted suicide,” Baltus remembers. “He put us in touch with Compassion in Dying, and they sent us the paperwork and talked us through it.” The organization then made available a team of volunteers, including experts in mental health and end-of-life care. As Compassion in Dying makes clear, information about obtaining medication for a hastened death “is provided only to those patients who, in the judgment of the case managers, demonstrate a rational, voluntary, and considered approach to end-of-life decisions.”

Once Sutherland’s physician had certified that she was terminal, Sutherland herself made both an oral and a written request for the medication in the presence of two witnesses (one of whom must be a non-relative). Two physicians then had to certify in writing that she was of sound mind and not depressed. She was informed of every end-of-life care option available and of the realities of the life-ending medication. At every step she was offered a chance to change her mind. The 15-day waiting period then began. This was the most difficult time for Sutherland and her family.

“I wish we had requested the medication sooner,” says McMurchie. “The whole time she was in the hospital we were so focused on her living longer. None of us wanted assisted suicide. You even, under the surface, hope she’ll die without needing it. Not acting sooner is my one regret—the waiting period is a good thing, but by then mom was ready to go, and those final two weeks were very hard. She was in great pain and the only way to control it was to knock her out, which she didn’t want. She never really slept at night, she was seeing things, having lots of problems with bowel control, coughing up blood. She would wake up moaning, saying that we ‘just didn’t understand the kind of pain she was in and why wouldn’t we just let her go.’ She spent a lot of time crying, her dignity was gone, and still we had to wait.”

At last the final request was made. The day before, Sutherland had slipped into a near coma, and the family thought how terrible it would be if, after waiting for 14 days, she wouldn’t be able to communicate. But on the morning of the 15th day, Sutherland suddenly awoke clear as a bell, more aware and talkative than she’d been for a month.

McMurchie went with Sutherland’s doctor to pick up the prescription. There are only two pharmacies in the entire city that will fill a lethal prescription, so it was a long drive. The pharmacist wouldn’t look at them while they paid for the drugs.

“People don’t understand how much this has to be the individual’s own choice under the Death with Dignity law,” says Baltus. “There’s nothing impulsive about it. The person has to be aware and in control. I don’t know even now what I’d do in my mother’s situation, but it was a choice that made sense to her, that was totally consistent with who she was. She had been thinking it through for a long time.”

“I think this was an amazing gift for our family,” McMurchie emphasizes, “that we were all able to be there together and say good-bye. Simply having the option for Death with Dignity allowed my mother and our family to spend her last moments really having a relationship. Really living, not just standing a deathwatch. It was her final deliberate, graceful act.”

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