Oregon woman documents her end-of-life experience
In July 2007, Lovelle Svart, a retired researcher from The Oregonian who was suffering from lung cancer, introduced herself to the newspaper's...
Seattle Times staff reporter
In July 2007, Lovelle Svart, a retired researcher from The Oregonian who was suffering from lung cancer, introduced herself to the newspaper's readers in an online-video journal. She was 62 years old and had a prognosis of less than six months to live. She wanted to share her end-of-life experience.
"This society needs to talk more about death and dying, all the time, regardless of where people are in their lives, they need to be thinking about, talking about with their friends and thinking about what death and dying entails," she wrote.
In the weeks that followed, "Living to the End" chronicled her story — and her ingestion of lethal medication under the state's Death with Dignity Act on Sept. 30, 2007.
Oregonian journalist Don Colburn, in an article about the final day, wrote that her final hours were carefully choreographed, with one last trip to visit a bridge in a favorite city park, and five hours set aside for storytelling, polka dancing and private goodbyes with friends and loved ones.
Oregonian journalist Rob Finch took photographs of that last day and made an audio recording of the minutes leading up to her drinking the lethal prescription.
Michael Arrieta-Walden, a managing editor at The Oregonian, said that Svart's tale offered unusual insight into how a person chooses to live the final months of a life and helped stir a wider dialogue about end-of-life care. Many people praised Svart for her bravery in facing death and the decision to share her story. Readers also responded to Svart's use of the decade-old Death with Dignity law.
"Even though the Oregon act has been in place for years, no one had even seen it on a public stage. That it could play out this way. That you could be polka dancing in the morning and die that night. And for some people, that was really jarring and difficult to take," said Walden.
Two different barbiturates — secobarbital and pentobarbitol have been frequently used under the act. Patients on average lapse into unconsciousness within five minutes of taking the lethal drugs and die on average within 25 minutes, according to statistics published by Oregon's Department of Health.
Prior to ingesting the barbiturates, patients often take pills to calm their stomachs and control vomiting.
That's what Svart did shortly before 4 p.m. on Sept. 30. Then, Colburn wrote, there was a hugging line where friends offered embraces, a chance for one last cigarette and yet another hugging line about an hour later just before she took the lethal medicine.
Those at her bedside included George Eighmey, executive director of Compassion & Choices of Oregon, an advocacy group that serves as a kind of clearinghouse and referral service for terminally ill patients who want to learn more about their options.
Since 1998, Compassion & Choices of Oregon has been contacted by more than 1,180 terminally ill patients. Of those patients, 289 used lethal prescriptions to end their lives, according to statistics released by the group.
Eighmey reaches out to many of the patients who contact the group and has attended more than three dozen deaths of people who opted to take a lethal medication. His counseling of Svart in her final minutes were chronicled in The Oregonian:
"Is this what you really want?" Eighmey said.
"Actually, I'd like to go on partying," Svart replied, laughing before turning serious. "But yes."
"If you do take it, you will die," Eighmey said.
Eighmey warned her that the clear liquid would taste bitter. She needn't gulp it. She would have about a minute and a half to get it down.
Ever the detail person, she reminded him that she wanted her glasses and watch removed, "after I fall asleep."
Colburn wrote that Eighmey once again asked her to affirm that she wanted to take the drug.
Yes, she replied.
After a final round of hugs from friends, she drank the liquid.
"Most godawful stuff I ever tasted in my life," she said.
Colburn wrote that Svart lay back and scrunched down under the covers, glasses still on to see her loved ones. She reached for her mother, who leaned closer, then lay down next to Svart, stroking her hand.
"Are you OK, honey?"
"I'm fine, Mom."
"You're not sick?"
"No. I'm peaceful. It stopped raining, the sun's out. And I've had a wonderful day."
Her eyes closed.
"It's starting to hit me now."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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