When Doctors and Lawmakers Failed Us, My Family Had to End My Father's Life
A harrowing look at a unique act of kindness.
Three months ago I lost my father to cancer. Or, rather: I had to help cancer take him. I held his hand as he took his last breath. I felt his pulse slow until it came to a stop. I watched his chest, wasted to skin and bones, subtly rise and fall and not rise again. And I had to experience the trauma of giving him that peace.
My father’s cancer started in his esophagus, then it spread, to his stomach, his liver, his thyroid. Finally, they found a large brain tumor behind his left ear. The cancer in his esophagus made it extremely difficult for him to speak and to eat. He lived a month after his diagnosis. At the miserable end, no medical professional, no hospice nurse, could grant his wish to end his own life. Instead, it fell to his family. It fell to me.
I flew to Pennsylvania from Florida to visit him. He’d said he didn’t want me to see him. In health, he was very good-looking: six-foot-two, sandy blonde hair, blue eyes, 250 pounds of muscle. He could be proud, even vain. When I heard he’d lost 100 pounds, I couldn’t imagine what I’d find. He was always a strong figure in my life, literally and figuratively. I knew I could never live with the regret of not seeing him. He and I went back and forth over the phone about whether or not I could fly up to see him, because of COVID, because of his immune system, whatever excuse he came up with. He finally broke my heart with the truth. “Honey, I do want to see you,” he said. “I’m just scared it will be the last time.” I asked him if he was scared to die. Except I couldn’t say the words “to die.” He knew what I meant. “No,” he said. “I’m not scared.”
I Wasn’t Prepared for What I Would Find
My dad had decided to leave the hospital and refuse more treatment. I was angry with him for giving up. That was, until I saw him. When I got to his house his girlfriend told me he was upstairs sleeping. She said I should pop my head through the doorway to see him before I went in to visit, so I could compose myself. She asked whether I'd seen Dallas Buyers Club with Matthew McConaughey.
When I looked through the bedroom door my body shut down. I fell to the floor, hyperventilating, crying. I couldn’t believe the person in bed was my father. He was shirtless, with a sheet partially covering his right leg and exposing the adult diaper he was wearing. His bodybuilder frame was boney and limp. His skin was a glassy, pale yellow. His eyes, sunken into his head, were ringed in black. His cheekbones were razors. His teeth protruded from behind his lips.
I caught my breath and wiped my eyes. I knew I had to be strong for him.
When I walked into the room, my dad tried to cover himself. I walked over to him and helped him with the sheet. I kissed him and felt his cheekbone on my lips. Neither of us knew what to say. I held his hand and told him Mom had sent some pictures for him to look at, if he wanted. He nodded and mumbled, “Sure, honey.” I took out the large white envelope my mother gave me with tons of old pictures from when he was younger. I pulled out a photo of him and his friend posing, around 18 years old. The back read “Sears Pose.” He laughed. I asked if he wanted to see more. He said, “No, not really.” I asked him if he wanted to hear about my cat Arthur getting into a scrap with a dog? “Not really.” He was defeated. He said he needed a minute. I left and told him I would be back to say goodbye.
Downstairs were my two uncles and my aunt. We talked about his will, his wishes, his cremation. I signed papers. My uncle told me that in the hospital my father told him after he saw me he’d be ready to “go.” Once I said goodbye, they thought, he might pass away: “He needs to know you’re gone so he can stop trying to hold on.”
I went back upstairs to say goodbye to my father, forever. I kissed him, this time on his forehead. I held his hand and told him I was going to leave now, and that I loved him very much and he was a good father. He told me to tell my brothers that he loved them. He couldn’t remember the name of my younger brother. I felt bad and reminded him. He let out a few tears and he lifted his fingers to his mouth, kissed them and reached out to give the kiss to me. “It’s okay, honey,” he said. “It’s okay.” I pressed his hand to my cheek and kissed it. I told him I loved him again and left the room.
As I was walking down the stairs, I knew there was no way I could leave. I told my uncle that I was going to stay until the end. My father had said he was ready to die. We needed to end his suffering. So how did this work?
We Were Left With Decisions No Family Should Have to Contemplate
My uncle had hired a hospice agency to make daily housecalls. The nurse would be there at 6 p.m. We figured we would bribe her to help us end his life. After seeing him I knew it was the only option. He was taking morphine and a fentanyl patch for pain, and Ativan for anxiety. I presumed that if he overdosed, he would be blissfully unaware of his heart stopping.
The hospice nurse had a different idea. She suggested continuing to give my father small doses of morphine until he passed on his own, perhaps in three days.
I was not going to leave my father lying in a bed waiting days to die. Desperate, my uncle offered her $1,000 to tell us what would stop his heart. The nurse, afraid of taking a bribe and losing her job, told us that we could give him a morphine dose every half hour instead of every hour. So we did that.
I always thought morphine was given through an IV in your arm, like you see in movies. The liquid morphine we had came in a square plastic bottle with a twist cap that reminded me of the Bubble Jug powdered gum we used to chew as kids. The instructions were to fill syringes and empty them into his mouth, toward the back of his throat. He moaned and cried as we did. I’d never seen my father cry. The brain tumor made him delusional. He mumbled about cranes at the port and weight loads, presumably from when he used to help his father at the shipyard as a teenager. My uncle told me my father had nightmares on morphine while in the hospital. He dreamt that he died and we buried him alive. He made my uncle promise not to let that happen to him.
He really was gone inside that body I didn’t recognize. It felt like a knife in my chest that I didn’t know how to help him. I was terrified he was suffering and unable to communicate. The morphine put him into a waking sleep. He was laid back with his mouth open and his half-closed eyes searching slowly and aimlessly around the room. When he focused on me, I could tell that he knew who I was. I locked eyes and told him that it was okay for him to go, that he didn’t have to keep fighting and that I wouldn’t be mad at him if he gave up.
It’s impossible to describe what it feels like, to want a person you love more than anything in the world to die.
In a Terrible Moment, We Were Forced to Improvise
I couldn’t take any more. We came up with a plan, my uncle and me. We would give him everything at once: the morphine, the Ativan and the fentanyl patch that was supposed to be delivered soon. My uncle crushed up anti-nausea medicine, mixed it with water, and put it into a syringe. We gave him that and a double dose of morphine.
We aren’t doctors. We didn’t know what to do. We waited on the fentanyl patch we thought would put him over.
Hours passed. No patch. We called and called. Finally, someone told us it was on the way. When the delivery came, there was no patch, just more Ativan. We called again and were told they’d made a mistake, we couldn’t get the patch until tomorrow. We needed a new plan. So we googled: How much morphine will kill someone? Turns out it depends on various factors. I was afraid my dad would vomit the morphine and we would have none until the nurse brought more the next evening. We decided to keep up the double doses and Ativan: from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., each half-hour. I held his hand and felt his pulse, hoping it would fade. His shallow breathing would stop altogether until he took a huge gasp of air. I hoped he wasn’t in pain.
For 12 hours, I tried to kill my father. Every time I gave him more morphine I hoped it would be the last. I could see the whites of his eyes roll back. His mouth hung open. When he took a large breath, his throat gurgled. I would never wish such grief or agony on anyone.
I began to have a panic attack. I couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t catch my breath, felt like the world was ending. I grabbed Xanax from my purse and took one. (I’m prescribed a low dose for anxiety while flying.) My uncle had the idea: “We should give him those.” Yes. How many? Ten to be safe? We agreed. In the kitchen, my uncle crushed the Xanax, added water and filled one of the syringes. I made a syringe of morphine. We brought them upstairs. I held up my father's head as we gave him the liquids. I poured a sip of water into his mouth. Then I laid his head back down and sat on the chair beside the bed.
In the End, I Know We Did the Right Thing
It happened fast. I held my father's left hand in my left hand and felt his pulse with my right. His heart beat slower and slower. His breathing softened. I knew he was going to die. I reached my right hand out to touch his face and said, “I love you.”
Then he was gone. I was relieved and devastated. I lay next to him for hours. I cried on his shoulder, held his hand, and closed his eyes when they opened. I told him everything I couldn’t say when he was alive. Then I watched two strangers take his body away in a bag.
This was not the way my father wanted to die. This is not the way anyone should have to die. With no help from doctors, hospice or anyone, my uncle and I were left on our own to end his suffering. Because euthanasia is not legal in Pennsylvania, my father and our family were subjected to insurmountable grief, grief that I live with every single day of my life.
Euthanasia is legal in only nine places in the United States: Washington D.C., California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, Hawaii and Washington State. I hope no one has to know the excruciating pain of watching a loved one suffer needlessly. I know that many do and I hope that in the future this will not be a reality many are forced to face. The optimistic thing I can leave you with: These are only laws. And laws can always be changed.