The organization Compassion & Choices serves to defend doctors and protect the rights of terminally ill patients, said Regional Campaign and Outreach Manager Roland Halpern during an informational event the group hosted in Wilmette, IL Sunday. Halpern answered questions from long-term and prospective members of Compassion & Choices, the nation’s largest organization with a stated mission of expanding options for patients at the end of life.
Halpern highlighted the case of Dr. Joan Lewis, a New Mexico oncologist who in 2001 faced the loss of her medical license for prescribing large doses of narcotics to help treat her patients’ chronic pain. According to The Albuquerque Tribune: The state Board of Medical Examiners accused the Albuquerque specialist of injudicious prescribing” of narcotics for six pain patients. The assistant attorney general called her practice “voodoo.”
Halpern said Compassion & Choices filed a friend-of-the-court brief and provided information about pain management and treatments. “The problem with what’s on the prescription box, is that it’s a recommended dosage based on what 40-year-old-males test out for during particular clinical trials. At the end of life patients are not usually 40 or have just one illness- some people respond to lower doses and some people need higher doses of pain medications,” said Halpern. “It’s not like all of her patients were dying or getting addicted. There really is no upper limit when someone is dying of cancer, as long as medication is introduced gradually and over time.”
The oncologist’s medical license was reinstated. “We believe that if a doctor is willing to be aggressive in treating end of life pain, they shouldn’t be left out to dry if something happens, and a medical board threatens them,” he said.
The non-profit arm of the organization also provides several services to patients facing death, including referrals to specialists or organizations, end of life counseling and advance care planning. “We never charge for such services, and we service clients in any state,” said Halpern.
He also advised non-Catholics about restrictions within Catholic hospitals and hospices. “You need to interview the hospice or hospital and say ‘these are my wishes,'” he said. “If it’s got a ‘St.’ in front of it, it may not be a good choice for you if you want to have a feeding tube removed.” Halpern asserted that Compassion & Choices is committed to keeping religion out of medicine.
The legal arm of Compassion & Choices advocates for aid in dying legislation across the U.S.– physician-assisted suicide (“Death with Dignity”) for mentally competent terminally ill patients. Such legislation varies state to state. Physician-assisted suicide is banned in Illinois.
But Halpern maintains Compassion & Choices does not support suicide or euthanasia. “Suicide is choosing death over life,” he said, then noting how a terminally ill patient is already in the process of dying.
“We need to have an open dialogue about death and dying,” Halpern said. “We’ve got to get back to the point where we talk about it and realize it’s not some scary thing.”