Why Choice is an Illusion?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Kenneth Stevens, MD, supporting SB 5919.

My name is Dr. Kenneth Stevens. I live in Sherwood, Oregon. I'm testifying in favor of Senate Bill 5919, which amends Washington's Death with Dignity Act.

I'm a cancer doctor in Oregon, where we've had the similar act since 1997. I'm also a professor emeritus at Oregon Health and Science University. I previously served as Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology. I have treated thousands of patients with cancer.

Jeanette Hall
I practice in both Washington state as well as Oregon. I've read the proposed bill, which amends Washington's act to make it clear that patients who request a lethal dose under the act have the right to be told of treatment options for cure and to extend life.

I strongly support this bill, especially due to my experience with a patient named Jeanette Hall. The Oregon and Washington acts apply to patients predicted to have less than six months to live.  This does not necessarily mean that the patients are dying. This is true for two reasons:

  • Predicting life expectancy is not an exact science. In my practice as a cancer doctor, there are always some patients who beat the odds. Depending on  [the] type of cancer, this can be for a short period of time, months or years. I had one patient who outlived his terminal prognosis by more than 20 years. 
  • In practice, a six months to live [prognosis] may be determined to be without a patient['s] being treated. For this reason, persons with chronic conditions such as insulin-dependent diabetes are eligible for assisted suicide under the act.[*] Such persons with treatment can have years to live.
I'd now like to talk about my patient Jeanette Hall. In the year 2000, another doctor had told her that her cancer was inoperable. He had given her a terminal diagnosis of six months to a year to live. That doctor had referred her to me.

At our first meeting, Jeanette Hall told me that she was going to do our law. In other words, she was going to kill herself with a lethal dose of barbiturate. She wanted me to give her the pills. This was very much a settled decision.

I informed her, however, that her cancer was treatable and that her prospects were good. She was not initially interested in treatment, but she continued to see me, and I provided her with additional information.

She then did decide to be treated, which was successful. Her cancer disappeared.

Today, 15 years later, she's thrilled to be alive. She's told me, "You saved my life." She frequently exclaims, "It's great to be alive."

Patients deserve to be given informed consent. I think another title for this bill could be "A Patient's Right to Know" legislation. It provides additional protection for their right to know and to make an informed consent and decision and to know the alternatives to assisted suicide,

So, I urge you to pass Senate Bill 5919.

Thank you.

*  Oregon's annual reports list diabetes and other chronic conditions as a "terminal disease" rendering a person eligible for assisted suicide.  See 2013 report at pp. 6-7, by clicking here.  See an explanation by Dr. William Toffler, by clicking here.   Washington's 2013 report lists COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) as a terminal disease rendering a person "eligible" for assisted suicide.  Click here, at page 6, footnote 6.