Patti James has spent her 80 years focusing on her nursing career, responsibilities to her family and foster kids, service to her church and devotion to her exceptional array of friends.
Politics haven’t been high on her agenda. Until now.
James, who has struggled with lung cancer for ten years, is dead-set on pushing through a statewide ballot initiative that would give terminally ill Coloradans access to lethal doses of drugs to speed up their deaths. To be eligible under the proposed law, adult patients would have to be Colorado residents, mentally capable, and have six months or fewer to live, as confirmed by two physicians.
The End-of-Life Options ballot campaign formally launches Tuesday afternoon on the steps of the state Capitol.
“Whatever amount of time I have left, I still have a lot of work to do and a lot of things I want to say on this issue,” says James, a grandmother and step-great-grandmother several times over from Littleton.
James’ views on end-of-life choices formed early in her medical training when she worked in a nursing home. She was struck by how infirmed some residents became, by how much pain they endured and by how prolonged deaths so often eroded their dignity.
“Sometimes, as nurses, we’d be thinking ‘why are we doing this?’ or ‘how long is this going to have to last for them?’,” she says.
Questions around aid-in-dying hit closer to home in the 1980s when James’ father, William Pollock, suffered a heart attack, a stroke and then pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease before he had to be placed in a nursing home. Pollack was a shy, anxious man to start out with; being institutionalized tormented him. In time, he became so agitated that he’d rock in his wheelchair until it tipped over. He’d yell, “Help, help, help.” And, during his last few months, the facility removed his bed and sealed off an area of his room into a pen of sorts to keep him from hurting himself or wandering away.
Pollack looked to his daughter to save him from a prolonged, difficult death on the cold floor of the nursing home. Given her medical background, he expected she’d intervene and help him die with more dignity.
But she couldn’t. The law doesn’t allow it. And that inability, that sense of powerlessness has haunted James ever since.
“All these years, I’ve kicked myself for not doing more, not being smarter about it, not doing better for my dad. Those feelings get easier over time, but they don’t go away. They’re always there. And that’s largely why I’m so involved on this issue – in honor of my dad,” she says. “If this can save only one person from a horrible death, I’ll have done something good and right in this life.”
The Death with Dignity movement has had roots in Colorado since what used to be known as the Hemlock Society – now Compassion & Choices – set up its national headquarters in Denver. The issue gained notoriety with Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s long string of so-called mercy killings in Michigan.
“Kevorkian’s role was to highlight a problem, but in no way was his kind of practice any kind of solution to that problem. We’ve found that there are infinitely better ways to go about it than the way Dr. Kevorkian did,” says Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee. “What has evolved over the years was a careful, safe medical practice with standards of care that meet the need while offering people with a whole comprehensive menu to end-of-life choices and not abandoning them to their pain and suffering.”
Five states – including California as recently as this month – now have aid-in-dying options laws on their books.
Legislative bills in Colorado failed in the past two sessions. Citing a Talmey-Drake poll last year indicating 68 percent support for a right-to-die law in Colorado, organizers so far have recruited about 120 volunteers to gather signatures to qualify the initiative for November’s ballot.
As Coombs Lee tells it, the aid-in-dying issue tends to have more success with direct-democracy ballot initiatives than in legislatures “because people voting in the privacy and anonymity of the voting booth aren’t subject to the same public pressures that are put on lawmakers.”
Opposition to the movement comes largely from the Christian Right, which has posted billboards such as one in Colorado Springs reading: “Assisted Suicide: You can’t LIVE with it.”
Many members of Colorado’s disability rights community also oppose the measure on grounds that it lacks medical oversight and patient safeguards.
Proponents counter that the initiative is, in fact, a safeguard in that it protects the terminally ill from ending their lives by more violent means such as shooting themselves, crashing their cars, jumping from balconies or kneeling in front of trains. Those efforts take some amount of physical strength, prompting some patients to take their lives sooner than they may be ready, before their symptoms make it impossible.
Aid-in-dying laws give doctors the ability to prescribe short-acting respiratory depressants and sedatives that trigger sleep, a coma and then a gentle death.
The point is to promote free agency, which supporters say is an especially Western – and Coloradan – value.
“When someone is sick and dying, they deserve to meet their own needs. The government shouldn’t impose suffering on people needlessly,” Coombs Lee says.
She expects the campaign, which will include TV spots once the issue qualifies for the ballot, to cost more than $5 million.
James and her husband spent Sunday at Denver PrideFest gathering signatures for the ballot issue. Despite the 97-degree heat, the gig was easy, she says.
“What was most incredible was the number of new voters who feel strongly about this issue. Even the young people were anxious to sign. I think people know far more than we thought they knew about the need for aid-in-dying.”
James was given two years to live after doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer in 2006. She has been in and out of treatment ever since. This past winter was tough, with bronchitis. But as spring turned to summer yesterday, she said she felt upbeat and strong, despite the tumors in both her lungs.
“She’s an energizer bunny. If you were to meet her and see her today you’d never know she had a sick day in her life,” Arlo James says of his wife. “When the time comes, she doesn’t want the children to be in a position watching her deteriorate in pain. We’re all on the same page when it comes to that.”
Patti James says the thing about the aid-in-dying movement she gets “most cranked up about” is “when it’s called a suicide bill.”
“I can tell you that people who are diagnosed with a terminal illness are not suicidal. They want to live. But when pain gets more than tolerable, they want relief. There’s a big difference there.”
Nobody would fault an 80-year-old retired nurse and foster mom for choosing to spend her retirement with her grandkids, book group, women’s golf league, bridge club, handicraft group or the “senior wisdom committee” at her church. She has, after all, earned some R & R.
James will make time for all that, but also for pounding the pavement in support of what she sees as a personally and publicly unresolved issue – one she hopes will help define the last chapters of her life. Helping to pass an aid-in-dying law in Colorado is on her bucket list.
“I want to hang out for a while more,” she said Monday. “But if I become terminal, I want to have made a difference ensuring I have a choice to find some release.”
Reporter Corey Hutchins contributed to this report.