by Catherine Carey, Volunteer Storyteller

Nancy and Randy a year after his diagnosis.

Many people worked very hard to get Washington State’s Death with Dignity (DWD) Act passed into law; one was Nancy Niedzielski. As Nancy’s husband, Randy, was dying, she promised him that she would work to make Medical Aid in Dying (MAiD) legal in WA. Randy Niedzelski’s decline with brain cancer left him in severe pain with muscle contortions, no control of his arms and legs, double vision, incontinence, excessive drooling, and great anxiety. To hasten his death and end his misery, Randy used the practice known as Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking or VSED. 

Nancy, who is an educator and a self-admitted “people person” with great communication skills, knew that her compelling story about her husband’s death made her a natural spokesperson for MAiD. She helped voters understand Washington’s Death with Dignity Act so they would endorse it. To this day, Nancy continues to inform others about our important DWD law.

To educate voters about MAiD, the early DWD campaign aired TV ads featuring speakers who shared their personal stories about MAID, like Nancy’s promise to her husband. Other speakers included Arline Hinckley, a social worker, hospice volunteer, client advisor, and board member for Compassion & Choices (which inspired the formation of End of Life WA, or EOLWA). Our former Washington state governor, Booth Gardner, talked about his having Parkinson’s disease. Julie McMurchie spoke about her mother, who was able to die gracefully using Oregon’s DWD law. Dr. Tom Preston shared his belief that medical doctors can participate in MAiD, knowing they are being humane and ethical. Rev. Dr. Bruce Parker shared his belief that our highest traditions have ethical teachings in common, and today we “respond to the call to understand and respect each other’s choices.” 

With Washington State’s Death with Dignity (DWD) Act, medical providers can prescribe lethal medication to mentally capable adults who have a prognosis of six months or less to live. After all other requirements are met, individuals are able to request MAiD, and can then choose to self-ingest the medication to peacefully end their suffering at a time and place of their choosing.

Today, people who do not qualify for MAiD often still turn to VSED. Fortunately, these individuals have far more support from the medical community today, with increased palliative care and more thorough information. VSED Resources NW is a valuable organization that offers comprehensive information about the VSED process. 

Grateful to all the volunteers and voters that helped get Washington State’s DWD law on the books so her promise to her husband could be fulfilled, Nancy is paying it forward as she now directs much of her time toward educating others. Her presentation subjects include MAiD, VSED, Advance Directives, including specialized directives for those with dementia, and Hospice. She also discusses People’s Memorial Association forms for Body Disposition, Designated Agent, and Vital Statistics. Future scheduled guest speakers are Robb Miller, former EOLWA Executive Director; Wendy Norman, former EOLWA Board Member; Kay Longhi, former EOLWA Board President; and Karen Griffin, EOLWA Volunteer Client Advisor (VCA). 

Currently, Nancy lives at Horizon House, a retirement community in downtown Seattle, and has spoken to numerous organizations such as retirement communities, rotary clubs, senior centers, the National Oncology Nurses’ Association, Parkinson’s groups, medical ethics boards, hospice organizations, and universities. She developed an educational program for the People’s Memorial Association called “Got Your Ducks in a Row?”  Nancy helps neighbors complete their end-of-life documents, and Horizon House residents proudly wear their ‘Ducks in a Row’ sticker on their name tags which often prompt end-of-life discussions.

Many people fear the possible suffering at the end of their lives. Knowing that this compassionate option is available, should there ever be the need, offers peace of mind. Nancy Niedzielski and other MAiD ambassadors are a living legacy as they help make healthy conversations about living and dying not only possible, but so much easier.