Washington’s Death with Dignity Act, in effect since 2009, permits physicians who support the law to prescribe an aid-in-dying medication after a complex process of requests and waiting periods. After the law had been in effect for some time, it was found that some safeguards created roadblocks and caused unnecessary suffering for certain patients. 

Improving Access to the Death with Dignity Act, ESHB 1141, will maintain core protections while improving terminally ill Washingtonians’ access to medical-aid-in-dying, especially those who live in medically underserved communities. One of the proposed major improvements would be shortening the waiting period, from 15 days to 72 hours. 

This story below is a firsthand account of a daughter whose family fought to preserve her mother’s autonomy but watched her suffer due to the 15-day waiting period. 

Gloria’s Story

by Crystal B.

I spent almost two years watching my mom die. I just didn’t know it at the time. 

My mom is Gloria Jean Oberholtzer. 11/18/57 – 10/11/21. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Grandmother. Fairy Godmother. The best of the best friends. Amazing cook. Loudest person in the room. Cancer warrior. Hospice patient. These are only a few of the words that help to paint a picture of my mom. 

She was also a victim of silence. The silence followed her request for an endoscopy exam when she first had trouble swallowing. No, it’s acid reflux her doctor said. 

It wasn’t acid reflux. It was esophageal cancer.  

Late-stage esophageal cancer was discovered after more than a year and at least two requests for a more thorough examination. 

She navigated chemo, radiation, a stomach feeding tube, a laryngectomy (removal of the voice box), and more chemo. Through it all, my mom’s health declined.  

Then, a chemo appointment turned into an Emergency Room visit, and finally, into a choice between comfort measures only or being put on a ventilator. 

No ventilator. Mom had at first elected to fight but that fight was gone now. 

“Is she really dying?” I asked. 

“Would I be surprised if she made it through the night? Yes.” the doctor answered. 

My mind whirled. O-h-h-h. WOOOOOH, deep breath. OK. Mom isn’t getting treatment anymore. She is dying. Ok. 

But did she have to let the disease slowly extract bits and pieces of her life? 

I asked, “Is there ANYTHING we can do to make this fast and comfortable for her?” 

Silence again. 

Then “There is nothing I can do.” 

I was crushed. Shocked. Stunned. Sad. 

“I swear I’m not trying to be stubborn, I’m ready to die,” mom said. 

She also told her nurses, “I wish I could tell my family when I’ll die.” 

But she could have. A long time ago. 

It took me seven seconds to find out that Washington state has a Death with Dignity Law. Mom could have avoided all of this suffering. A long time ago. 

We called our hospice Social Worker on a Friday. She called back on Tuesday. 

In the meantime, more Google searching led me to End of Life Washington. Within hours they had found a volunteer to work with the family to help end mom’s suffering. 

“I want to die and no one told me I could do it on my own terms,” mom said. “I want to choose this, just like I’ve chosen to fight what led to this.” 

Infuriatingly, all the time we spent getting no information on end-of-life options from the medical staff, mom had to wait 15 days before a lethal dose of medication could be prescribed under the law. 

Fifteen days! Doesn’t sound like much. But it is. 

Day 1 looks like:I’m confined to a bed but I can interact with my family. I’m not ready to die today, now, but I want to choose when I can. 

Day 2 looks like:Did the doctor say it’s ok? Can I choose a day? No? FIFTEEN DAYS until I can?! 

Day 5 looks like:Has it been 15 days? 

Day 10 looks like:I have to do another Zoom call with a doctor for the first doctor to prescribe the medication so I can die? WHY?! 

Day 12 looks like:Mom is no longer regularly coherent or responsive. 

Day 14 looks like:Withhold pain meds for a while so Mom might be able to be coherent enough to ask for what she wants. Give it to her when she starts trying to eat a Styrofoam cup. Her brain is going. 

Day 15 looks like:“I can’t prescribe this medication, she’s not coherent enough. She may pass naturally in a few days,” says her doctor. There is no dignity in Day 15. 

Day 18 looks like:Dad calls, thinks she won’t make it through the night. She’s no longer waking up. I rush to her bed, hold her hand and tell her it’s OK to go. Tell her you tried your best to make it happen on her terms. You know she’s gone, and hug her tight. Say goodbye. 

Day 19, 20, 21 look like:Day 18. 

Day 22 looks like:Dad calls. He thinks she’s gone. He’s been checking her temperature against his to make sure the thermometer is working. His is 97.8. Hers is 90. He’s pretty sure. The nurse can’t come, but the hospice call center says they’re pretty sure she’s gone. The funeral home shows up without calling to take her body away. 

My mom was a warrior. She fought for her life, and her family, as long as she could. And, she fought for her right to die with dignity the same way. 

The healthcare system and 15-day death with dignity protocol stole from her the last hopes she hadto choose the day she died and to keep her children and husband from watching her die a slow, painful death. 

She deserved more than we could give her by law. 

We can do better.