OLYMPIA – It took just a few weeks for the end of Linda Fleming’s life to rush painfully into focus.
Diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, Fleming pictured her final days filled with growing agony. The only relief would come from ever-stronger doses of medicine, which she feared would also dull her mind.
Instead, the Sequim, Wash., resident chose to take her own life with a deadly prescription of barbiturates – the first reported suicide under the state’s new Death with Dignity law, approved by voters last fall.
Fleming’s death was reported Friday by Compassion & Choices of Washington, an advocacy group that aids people who seek to use the state’s assisted suicide law. The group also released a prepared statement from Fleming, who died at her home Thursday night with family members, her physician and her dog by her side.
She had been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer just a month earlier, the group said.
“I am a very spiritual person, and it was very important to me to be conscious, clear-minded and alert at the time of my death,” Fleming’s statement said. “The powerful pain medications were making it difficult to maintain the state of mind I wanted to have at my death. And I knew I would have to increase them.”
Fleming expressed gratitude that the new law provided her with “the choice of a death that fits my own personal beliefs.”
A physician prescribed the medication to Fleming, but under the law, patients must administer the drugs themselves.
Last November, Washington became the second state to have a voter-approved assisted suicide law. It is based on a law adopted by Oregon voters in 1997. Since then, about 400 people have used the Oregon law to end their lives.
In December, a district judge in Montana ruled that doctor-assisted suicides are legal in that state. That decision, based on an individual lawsuit rather than a state law or voter initiative, is before the state Supreme Court.
While doctors in Montana are allowed to write prescriptions for life-ending drugs pending the appeal, it’s unknown whether any actually have, because there’s no reporting process in place.
Dr. Tom Preston, a retired cardiologist and board member of Compassion & Choices, said Washington’s law adds another option for patients like Fleming.
“The prescribed medication gives patients peace of mind that they can use to take control of their dying if suffering becomes intolerable,” he said in a written statement.
Chris Carlson, who opposed the law with the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, called the death unfortunate. “Any premature death is a sad occasion and it diminishes us all,” he said.
Under the Washington law, any patient requesting fatal medication must be at least 18, declared mentally competent and be a resident of the state.
Additionally, two doctors must certify that the patient has a terminal condition and six months or less to live, and the patient must make two oral requests 15 days apart, plus a written request that is witnessed by two people.
To comply with the law, a number of forms are required for each patient, but doctors have 30 days to file the forms after the prescription is filled. As of Friday, the state Department of Health had received six forms from pharmacists saying they have dispensed the life-ending drugs.
The state has also received five forms from individuals declaring a request for medication to “end my life in a humane and dignified manner,” and five doctors have completed forms complying with the rules of the new law.
The Health Department will report annually on the ages, genders and illnesses of those who file forms with the state; individual forms people complete are exempt from open records laws.
Under the Washington law, as in Oregon, doctors and pharmacists are not required to write or fill prescriptions if they oppose the law. Some hospitals have opted out, which precludes their doctors from participating on hospital property.