Last Wednesday, March 20, the Connecticut Assembly's Public Health Committee began its consideration of a bill modeled after Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. What a day! In my 22 years of legislative work, this hearing was the most grueling -- and the most inspiring -- I have ever witnessed. Compassion & Choices volunteers and supporters showed themselves to be as passionate, judicious, intelligent and dedicated as citizens can ever be. They are committed to a world of justice and mercy. And they trust in democracy to make it so.
They came because they want choice and control in their own mortal endings. But mostly, they came for others who could not -- their neighbors and loved ones and people unknown to them. They came that others need not suffer against their will, and that all may have the opportunity to face death in comfort and peace of mind. My heart swelled as I sat with them and heard the witness of these decent, altruistic, dedicated people.
The day began early, as aid-in-dying supporters travelled hours to Hartford by bus, car and train to be in line by 7 a.m. Sign-up began at 9, but being in line by 7 helped ensure an opportunity to speak. The hearing began at 10 and our bill, Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients (HB 6645), came up about noon. Representative Betsy Ritter, the bill's chief sponsor, spoke with eloquence and authority. Other legislators followed, and then the committee shifted gears and heard unrelated bills.
For many hours our supporters kept each other's spirits up as they sat patiently through testimony about nursing technicians, dental hygienists, something called advance practice collaboration agreements, and tattoo artist licensure.
Some of our valiant and dedicated supporters just had to leave when their bus departed or their backs gave out. But others stayed until 1 a.m. for their chance to speak. Yes, you read that right -- they endured this process from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. without complaint!
Here are a just few of the heroes:
Shannon Sanford, a Yale-educated nurse who did her masters thesis on Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. "Compassion & Choices were great to me when I was working on my thesis. I can stay to the bitter end," she told us. She had to, attending the entire 15-hour hearing as the last person to testify at approximately 1:30 a.m.
It fell to Shannon to present the committee with letters from all over the state. The stack was nearly a foot high, making a thump on the table.
Placing her hand on this tower of paper, Shannon said: "I brought my friends who are all in support of House Bill 6645." A legislator asked, "I have to know, how many people signed letters?" Shannon had a snappy response despite sitting 15 hours in a hearing room: "I stopped counting after 1,500."
Hunt Williams traveled over an hour to the state Capitol and waited 12 more to tell his story.
Hunt told the committee the story of his manslaughter arrest for merely cleaning a weapon his terminally-ill friend John Welles used when he was dying of cancer. Only due to the overwhelming support and advocacy in his community of Cornwall, Conn. was Hunt sentenced to accelerated rehabilitation, a process that took over a year. The committee and the entire room sat in complete silence as they listened to Hunt's riveting experience.
"Thank you sir, thank you for giving testimony. I think I was taken aback by what you had to say," a stunned co-chair of the committee, Senator Terry Gerratana, said.
Gloria Blick, aged 91, is a passionate advocate for end-of-life choice, as is her son Dr. Gary Blick. When called to testify, Gloria and Dr. Blick held hands and both walked confidently to the microphone and sat together supporting each other. Luckily, Gloria has not had a significant illness, but with her active volunteerism in the senior community, she has witnessed first-hand the pain and suffering of those at end of life, and it disturbs her greatly.
She made it clear to the committee she had been too active and too well to see her life end in a slow, relentless spiral of deterioration. Nor would she want her family, including Dr. Blick, to suffer unnecessarily with her. "I would never want to do that to my son," she said.
Lillian Kaplan sat for hours waiting for her opportunity to speak out in favor of HB 6645, offering moving testimony regarding the difficult and painful death of her son-in-law Steven Kahn, who wanted to die on his own terms. Lillian read into testimony a letter Steven wrote prior to his death.
"I am writing to you so you will not have to wonder ... I'm not asking for your approval, only that you honor my judgment," he wrote.
At the conclusion of her testimony, the Senate Chair of the Committee respectfully asked her age: "Well, in a year and a half I will be 100."
Lillian, Gloria, Gary and Shannon and so many others showed themselves to be amazing and inspiring advocates. It is an honor to be able to work beside them for choice and control at life's end.
For more by Barbara Coombs Lee, click here.
For more on death and dying, click here.