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Cancer survivor now opposes assisted suicide

Jeanette Hall believes that suicide should not be an option


by: BARBARA SHERMAN - GRATEFUL TO BE ALIVE - Jeanette Hall, in her King City home with one of her posters on the table, prepares to leave for Quebec, Canada, to speak out against a proposed assisted-suicide lawWhen Jeanette Hall (shown at right in a poster) voted in favor of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act in 1997, she had no idea that today she would be recognized nationally and even internationally as an opponent not only of Oregon's law but also attempts to replicate it elsewhere.

The assisted-suicide law, as it is commonly referred to, allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.

But when Hall, who has lived in King City for eight years, found herself wanting to take advantage of the law in 2000, she also discovered that it is not the panacea she envisioned.

At age 55, she was having abdominal problems, but doctors misdiagnosed the cause for a year. After passing out, going by ambulance to Oregon Health & Science University Hospital and given more tests, her doctor told her she had advanced colon cancer.

"I said, 'Just give me two units of blood - I need to get back to my job and my life,'" she said. "But I spent a week in the ICU, fighting for my life. They also saw a spot on my liver and thought the cancer had spread there, so they wanted to send me to (OHSU radiation oncologist) Dr. Ken Stevens."

Hall had watched her aunt go through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to fight her cancer, noting, "I watched her suffer, and she died anyway. I had no support system - my props were knocked away. My mom had dementia, and I was taking care of her, my son was just starting at the state police academy to become a police officer, my brother had just died, my cat had died - I had no one to lean on.

"I decided, I'll go see Dr. Stevens, but I won't do anything he says."

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - PARTNERSHIP - Cancer survivor Jeanette Hall credits radiation oncologist Dr. Ken Stevens, shown in his Sherwood home office, for saving her life and convincing her that assisted suicide was not her only option after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.Stevens is part of a group of doctors that formed the Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation and became its president; the group is opposed to assisted suicide and works tirelessly to prevent legislation similar to Oregon's from being passed elsewhere.

(Stevens lives in Sherwood with his wife Peggy, whose mother is King City resident Ramona Marchant.)

Sevens described Hall's situation in the following letter that was published in the Boston Globe on Nov. 3, 2012, when Massachusetts voters were considering passage of an assisted-suicide bill:

"In 2000, I had a cancer patient who had been given a terminal diagnosis by another doctor of six months to a year to live. This was based on her not being treated for cancer. At our first meeting, she told me that she did not want to be treated and that she wanted to opt for what our law allowed - to kill herself with a lethal dose of barbiturates.

"I did not and do not believe in assisted suicide. I informed her that her cancer was treatable and that her prospects were good. But she wanted 'the pills.' She had made up her mind, but she continued to see me.

"On the third or fourth visit, I asked about her family and learned she had a son. I asked her how he would feel if she went through with her plan. Shortly after that, she agreed to be treated, and her cancer was cured.

"Several years later, she ran into me in a restaurant and said, 'Dr. Stevens, you saved my life.'

"For her, the mere presence of legal assisted suicide had steered her to suicide."

Hall added, "If it were not for him, I would be a statistic, and here I am! But at the time, it was not an easy decision, when all my family props were gone, and I was afraid of suffering from the treatment. I first said to Dr. Stevens, 'Let me die.'

"I asked him what the first symptom would be as I got worse, and he said it would be pain in my legs. Well, that had started four months earlier. I thought I was just going to keep suffering. I wrestled with the decision all weekend.

"It was like I was on Jacob's ladder - the angel was pulling me up, and the devil was pulling me down! When I thought about going through the treatment, I thought about vanity - losing my hair and suffering and being a burden to people. I had had a good life."

When Hall, who grew up in Southwest Portland, graduated from Wilson High School and lived off and on for 60 years in the same house she grew up in, told her son Scott about her dilemma, "that boy went to bat for me," she said. "He wanted me to get the treatment. When I finally said OK, it became the fight of my life."

Hall got through the treatment, her cancer was cured, and now her attitude is, "It's great to be alive!"

She added, "It's a blessing - you get up every morning and know there is someone in the community you can help that day. When I saw Dr. Stevens in that restaurant that day in 2005, I said, 'You saved my life. I was going to call it a day.'"

But that was by far from their last encounter: Later, Hall fell in the shower and hit her head, and she couldn't talk and started having seizures.

"I was taken to the ER, and Dr. Stevens was there - he just happened to be there," Hall said. "It turned out that I didn't have a stroke, and I was able to go home... If you ever need a doctor, go to Dr. Stevens."

In 2010, Stevens called Hall and asked her if she would join the fight against the spread of legalized suicide, and she has become one of the faces of the movement

Stevens' group had been fighting efforts to legalize assisted suicide in Montana, and Hall filed a legal affidavit in court there and was featured in a Montana Missoulian newspaper ad. She also wrote a letter to the editor, ending it with, "If Dr. Stevens had believed in assisted suicide, I would be dead. I thank him and all my doctors for helping me choose 'life with dignity.’ Assisted suicide should not be legal."

Now the efforts of Stevens, Hall and others have shifted to the province of Quebec, Canada, where in its latest attempt to legislate euthanasia, the Quebec government introduced Bill-52 on June 12, 2013.

The Canadian government had previously tried to address euthanasia at the federal level but was unsuccessful as the House of Commons decisively rejected Bill C-384 in April 2010.

Hall has already been interviewed on a Canadian radio talk show about the issue, and she and Stevens flew to Quebec at the end of October to participate in a press conference explaining why euthanasia should not become the law of the land.