MADELEINE BRAND, host:
For advocates on both sides, physician-assisted suicide is an emotional, if abstract issue, bringing up big questions about religion and morality. But for people faced with imminent death, there's nothing abstract about it. Caleb Heppner is a retired child welfare administrator in Salem, Oregon. He is 57 years old. Though he never smoked, Heppner was diagnosed two years ago with Stage IV lung cancer. It's metastasized into his bones. I asked him about his prognosis.
Mr. CALEB HEPPNER (Cancer Patient): At this point, the doctor has said that I'm doing pretty well. When I was diagnosed about two years ago, they thought it would be about nine months, and I've beaten the odds. So at this point, I don't really know. I'm currently undergoing chemo treatment and I'm on morphine for pain.
BRAND: And when things get worse, when you see the end in sight, will you ask your doctor to prescribe the necessary drugs to end your life?
Mr. HEPPNER: Well, you know, that's a question, I think, that every patient thinks about, and I really don't know. The reason that I have considered it is that I watched my father die a couple years ago, and he died a really terrible death. It was 48 hours of excruciating pain. And I wanted to avoid that. And just knowing that the possibility of having physician-assisted help during that last few hours or whatever was a comfort.
BRAND: You call it physician-assisted help, not physician-assisted suicide.
Mr. HEPPNER: Yeah. I do. You know, I come from a very devout Christian family, and suicide has been something that's been wrong. And I still consider it something that is wrong or not ethically correct. But I was looking at the Death With Dignity Act, information around the death certificate, and the death certificate in Oregon for those individuals does not list suicide as a cause of death, but the underlying disease. So that made me think about it a little bit differently. And I've come to the conclusion that when a person is dying and you need assistance--in the old days, sometimes, the doctor would help the patient along a bit. It was very painful. You know, I remember stories of the doctor maybe, you know, increasing the morphine a little bit, knowing that it might cause, you know, the patient to stop breathing or to die, but knowing that it was adding comfort. And in Oregon now, it is, you know, legal for the doctor to sort of hand that over to the patient if the patient wants to ease that process along, instead of waiting for the disease to take kind of its nasty course. And for me, that was a real relief to know that that was available.
BRAND: Why involve the medical profession at all in this? If it's your decision and your private decision, why not do it on your own?
Mr. HEPPNER: Well, you know, I think--there, again, I really see this as a medical option. I don't see it as a person going out behind the woodshed and ending their life. And I think there's some real strength in that, and in Oregon, what this has done--there's a whole series of steps that a person has to go through, and it includes two physicians. They have to make a determination that you're not depressed. They make sure that you have good pain management, and there's a whole set of supportive services that comes in.
And as a result of that, I think very, very--fewer patients actually make use of it than would otherwise if it was not controlled. I can't change the fact that I'm going to die. I can't change a lot of the symptoms and the parts of the disease that are going to ultimately bring my death. But if I have some small control over those last hours, since I'm dying anyway, then for me, it's not as though I'm taking my life in my own hands. It's that I'm having assistance in those last hours to make sure that they're not painful, to make sure that I have some control over that process.
BRAND: Caleb Heppner is a retired child welfare administrator. He spoke to us from Salem, Oregon. And thank you very much for joining us, Mr. Heppner.
Mr. HEPPNER: Yes. You're very welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.