by EOLWA Staff

At 74 years old, Carl Shutoff has lost his fair share of loved ones. Ten years ago, before becoming a Volunteer Client Advisor (VCA) with End of Life Washington (EOLWA), Carl witnessed the death of his younger brother Harry. Harry had been sick for some time and had asked his doctors to keep him alive at all costs. Consequently, his doctors did not tell him he was terminal until ten days before he died. Carl does not believe his brother would have used the medical aid-in-dying law, but he does believe that had his doctors been more forthcoming sooner rather than later, he could have made choices that would have spared him so difficult a death.

A few years ago, pre-pandemic veteran VCA Sally Thomae approached Carl to volunteer at EOLWA. She thought Carl would be a great addition to the EOLWA VCA team. Carl was surprised but said he would give it some thought. After reflecting on some books he had read about end-of-life issues (“How We Die” by Sherwin Nuland and “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande), it occurred to Carl that Sally might see something in him he didn’t see.

Eventually, Carl decided to complete the VCA training and became a second for several months before taking on the role of primary VCA about two years ago. “I volunteer with a few different organizations, and there is no shortage of good causes. It’s challenging to decide where to give your time and money, and I want to ensure death with dignity is always an option.”

Volunteer Client Advisors at End of Life Washington guide clients through the process of using the Death with Dignity law, starting with the client’s first oral request made to their physician, through the 15-day waiting period, a second oral request, helping them get their prescription, preparing the medication, and supporting them as they self-administer the medication. VCAs start their experience as a “second” or an assistant to an experienced VCA; once they learn the process and feel comfortable, they can take on clients alone.

“I found that while it wasn’t easy, I thought I was good at it, and there was so much gratitude, reassurance, and relief leading up to that final day [with the client]. It became unexpectedly very important to me.”

When Carl tells his friends about his work with EOLWA, they often ask, “how do you do it? Doesn’t it get you down?” While being a VCA can be tough and emotional, Carl says it doesn’t get him down, and he experiences satisfaction from his work with EOLWA.

“I feel good about the work we do together; it has given me an additional surprise purpose, something I never imagined I’d be doing. There is something special about speaking openly and honestly about an experience as intimate and personal as how you want your life to end. I find myself discussing something terribly personal with total strangers who are glad to see me. There is something very singular about that first connection; it is unusually rewarding.”

For Carl, the biggest reward of being a VCA is helping clients know what end-of-life options are available to them so they have the freedom to die on their own terms. “When the family is on board, precious moments are shared.” Carl understands that these are difficult conversations to have, and he hopes to give volunteers, clients, and donors the information they need to make an informed decision about their next steps. “The gratitude the clients show me very much takes me by surprise. Even if they don’t end up taking the medication, there is some solace to be found, knowing they can pick up the phone and we’ll be there.”

When asked about his experience being part of EOLWA and the end-of-life community, Carl said, “I really enjoy the company of my fellow VCAs; they’re smart, funny, slightly twisted. I have always felt supported every step of the way by the VCAs and staff at End of Life Washington. It’s not often someone can enjoy that level of fellowship. In my professional life, that has not always been the case, and it is very satisfying to be part of this team committed to mutual support.”