Terminally ill man talks on ‘death with dignity’

  • Roger Kligler, a retired physician from Falmouth and a volunteer with the organization Compassion & Choices, speaks on the subject of medical aid in dying to about 60 people gathered at the Northampton Friends Meetinghouse on Monday. Gazette Photo

For The Recorder
Published: 10/17/2017 10:21:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As a retired doctor with terminal cancer, Dr. Roger Kligler is familiar with the moral dilemmas surrounding end-of-life care.

“Since I’ve been involved with medical aid in dying, I’ve become kind of a magnet,” Kligler said Monday in Northampton. “People with cancer come to talk to me, and their families come and talk to me. I’ve watched some people go through very bad deaths and I feel obligated to help them and not let other people go through the same suffering.”

The event was to rally support and awareness of the End of Life Options Act (H.1194) introduced by Rep. Louis Kafka, D-Stoughton, that would allow patients suffering from terminal illnesses to end their lives.

Kligler spoke first to dozens of community members at the Northampton Friends Meetinghouse, then again at the Northampton Senior Center at 67 Conz St. in the evening.

“I think it shows that a lot of people, especially older people, are thinking about this and really care about this issue,” said John Berkowitz, the event’s lead coordinator and Pioneer Valley Death With Dignity Action Group leader.

Kligler and Berkowitz volunteer with the Massachusetts branch of Compassion & Choices, the nation’s largest nonprofit working to improve end-of-life care. Berkowitz also leads support groups across the Pioneer Valley called “Living Fully, Aging Gracefully, and Befriending Death” that address general anxieties surrounding aging and mortality.

“One of the things that come up in our discussions is that, it’s not so much death I’m afraid of, it’s the dying process,” Berkowitz said.

Legislative push

On Sept. 26, the Joint Committee on Public Health held a public hearing on the issue. South Hadley Democratic Rep. John Scibak was one of 43 legislators who signed a petition for the bill, with Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, introducing a similar bill in the Senate.

Supporters of the bill call these “death with dignity” laws, while opponents, including the Massachusetts Medical Society and American College of Physicians, call them “physician-assisted suicide.” Opponents believe that minority and mentally handicapped patients will be taken advantage of when it comes to end-of-life care.

But Kligler disputes this.

“It’s not euthanasia, and it’s not suicide,” he said of the bill’s aim.

To qualify for medically assisted dying, patients would have less than six months to live, make the request orally and in writing, have two physicians sign it, and have a mental health professional ensure the patient is making the decision in sound mind. After a 15-day waiting period, a patient would be given the drugs to take if they choose.

If passed, Massachusetts would join six other states in allowing medically assisted dying. California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington allow the practice, as does Washington, D.C. Massachusetts would be unique in requiring patients to consult with a mental health expert.

In April the bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Public Health, where it will remain until early February unless lawmakers decide to move forward with, amend, or terminate it.

A similar ballot measure that would have allowed terminally ill patients to be prescribed lethal drugs failed to pass in 2012. While 52 percent of the state voted against the bill, 61 percent of Hampshire County residents voted for it.

“It’s an option, it’s a choice,” Berkowitz said. “Doctors don’t have to participate — they can refer patients somewhere else.”

Witnessing end of life

With over 40 years experience as a primary care doctor in Falmouth providing end-of-life care and counseling, Kligler is still dedicated to patient care even after he had to leave his practice two years ago. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, and found out the cancer had metastasized and was incurable in 2007.

“I worked in the intensive care units as well as on the floors. I took care of people at the end of their lives, and had many discussions, and saw death in many ways in the hospital,” Kligler said. “I liked being there for my patients at the end of their lives.”

Kligler said he is suing the state of Massachusetts and Attorney General Maura Healey on the grounds that current law does not prevent a physician from prescribing medication for terminally ill patients to end their lives, but physicians could lose their license for doing so.

Under current Massachusetts law, patients may choose to discontinue treatment or pursue palliative care as they ride out the final days of their illness, and no law says physicians cannot help a patient end their lives.

Trying to help people who are suffering through their dying becomes an ethical challenge, Kligler said.

“And I was thinking about me — I didn’t want to lose my license, I didn’t want to go to jail,” he said. “But that’s not the decision I should be making. I should just be listening to the patient.”

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