Matt Fairchild isn’t sure when he will die. But he’s mostly sure how he will die: With the love of his life beside him. His favorite music playing on the stereo. And cancer in his bones.
“It will be a little Jimmy Buffett and it will be us two,” Fairchild said, looking from his kitchen table in Burbank, to his wife, Ginger Fairchild, who sat on a nearby sofa.
Fairchild, a 46-year-old native of Ohio, and an Army and Navy veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq War, was diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma while at Fort Hood, Texas in August 2012.
• Video: Matt Fairchild talks about having stage four cancer
He took treatment and retired within a year, but the melanoma progressed to stage 3 and spread to his brain and bones in November of 2013. The three surgeries, three rounds of radiation, three different chemotherapy and immunotherapies aside, Fairchild now has stage 4 melanoma.
With so little in his control — besides taking 25 pills a day, setting doctor appointments and employing military grit to fight through the chronic pain in his body — the retired U.S. Army staff sergeant said he may get to control his final moments of life, thanks to a new state law.
Starting on June 9, terminally sick California residents may legally end their lives by doctor-prescribed medication, after lawmakers earlier this month adjourned a special session on health care, making way for physician-assisted suicides to take place in a state that becomes the fifth in the nation to allow the practice.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law in October last year.
Fairchild said if his treatments ultimately prove ineffective, he will order the prescription needed to end his life.
“I want the ability to have some control and not be locked into, God forbid, the worst-case scenario is you are still cognitive but you lose, you know, body control or functionality, and/or you’re in pain,” Fairchild said. “And at that point it’s just family and friends and you — if you’re cognizant of what’s going on — kinda sitting around hoping, waiting, wondering.”
Debate goes on
Oregon became the first state to allow physician-assisted suicide, when that state’s Death With Dignity Act was upheld by 60 percent of voters who turned out in 1997 to defeat a ballot measure aimed at repealing the law.
Three other states — Washington, Montana and Vermont — have since allowed their residents to end their lives through doctor-prescribed medication.
The California law, known as the End of Life Option Act, is based on the Oregon law, which garnered national attention again in 2014, when Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with brain cancer, moved from Northern California to Oregon in 2014 to end her life legally.
In the Golden State, patients must have the capacity to make medical decisions; people seeking life-ending drugs must submit oral requests, a minimum of 15 days apart, and a written request to his or her attending physician; two doctors must approve the requests and two witnesses must be present, and one of the witnesses must not be a family member.
The law also requires that patients have the ability to self-administer the life-ending drugs.
Joseph F. Prevratil, president and CEO of the Long Beach-based Archstone Foundation, a private grant-making group that supports efforts addressing the needs of seniors and the elderly, said a patient should have the right to decide how they want to end their lives.
“The terrible pain and suffering and cost that goes into end of life issues, where the situation is hopeless, and whether the care is at the home or in hospice or the hospital, the horrible stress on the patients is something I think everybody has empathy for,” Prevratil said. “It puts great stress on families as well as the caregivers, in addition to the patient.”
Prevratil said Archstone works hard at supporting palliative care — pain management, emotional and spiritual support — for those facing life-threatening illnesses, but a patient should have the option to end his or her life.
“We are strong believers in the fact that everything that is possible should be done, but when it’s hopeless, one has to take into consideration the individual patient, and that’s what should count,” he said. “The patient should make the decision.”
But opponents of the End of Life Option Act say despite its touted safeguards, patients facing life-threatening illnesses will become vulnerable to financial stress and coercion.
“A huge issue is that where assisted suicide is legal, some people’s lives will be ended without their consent, through mistakes and abuse,” said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst with the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “No safeguards have been enacted or proposed which can prevent this outcome. There is a deadly mix between our broken, profit-incentive healthcare system, and assisted suicide, which will become the cheapest treatment.”
Golden said her group has manifold concerns about right-to-die laws. Among those concerns, patients may be driven to the decision if insurers deny expensive treatments, Golden said; people with mental illnesses may be given lethal drugs despite safeguards in law that prohibit such.
“The person will be steered toward assisted suicide,” Golden said. “We have to ask, will insurers do the right thing, or the cheap thing? I think the basic thing we have to say is that our hearts go out to anyone dealing with terminal illness, and their families, but assisted suicide has harmed so many people that we can’t condone it as a positive thing. I think it plays on people’s fears about pain at the end of life. I would just say that California already has a grievous situation about a lack of care in parts of the state, a lack of good hospice. Instead of fixing those problems, we’re doing this.”
Close your eyes
Matt and Ginger Fairchild met in San Diego in 1991. He was in the U.S Navy while she attended San Diego State University. The couple married 18 years ago this summer.
In battling the cancer, they considered moving to Oregon, before California set a path for legalized assisted suicide. But that would mean expensive costs, including a new medical team, they said.
The decision to have Matt Fairchild take medically prescribed drugs, should treatment run out and the pain become intolerable, was made easier, if such can be said, as the cancer metastasized in his brain, and he endured a spell of seizures, cold sweats and hospital stays followed by no memory of what had happened.
“It was just kind of a peek into what things could be,” Ginger Fairchild said.
Matt Fairchild said he doesn’t want to leave his wife. But also doesn’t want to suffer, or die in a fog of pain.
“If you’re gonna leave this place, I’d rather look at the people you love, and feel warm, and close your eyes,” he said.