Berkeley, CaliforniaFew people have the unusual set of professional experiences that Dr. Lonny Shavelson does. He worked as an emergency room physician in Berkeley for years — while also working as a journalist. He has written several books and takes hauntingly beautiful photographs.
Now, just as California’s law aid-in-dying law takes effect this week, Shavelson has added another specialty: A consultant to physicians and terminally ill patients who have questions about how it works.
“Can I just sit back and watch?” Shavelson asked from his cottage office. “This is really an amazing opportunity to be part of establishing policy and initiating something in medicine. This is a major change … [that] very, very few people know anything about and how to do it.”
Shavelson is the author of the 1995 book, “A Chosen Death,” which followed five terminally ill people over two years as they determined whether to amass drugs on their own and end their lives at a time of their choosing. He was present at the death of all of them.
He wrestles with his own comfort level in handling patient requests. When he talks, he often pivots from his initial point to “on the other hand.”
Presberg says he is concerned that patients suffer from clinical depression at the end of life. Sometimes they feel they are a burden to family members who could “really push for the end of life to happen a little sooner than the patient themselves.”
His experience is that terminally ill patients with clinical depression can be successfully treated. He said he believes Shavelson will be aware of the need to treat depression,”but I do have concerns about other physicians.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “I think it’s really good that this is an option.”
Shavelson says he’s already received a handful of calls from patients, but mostly he’s spent his time before the law takes effect talking to other physicians. He needs a consulting physician and a pharmacist who will accept prescriptions for a lethal dose of medicine.
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Then his mind returns to the patient. “It’s important … that we’re moving forward,” he said. “It’s crucial that we do that because this is part of the rights of patient care to have a certain level of autonomy in how they die.”
To him, this type of care “isn’t so tangibly different” from other kinds of questions doctors address.
“I’m just one of those docs who sees dying as a process, and [the] method of death is less important than making sure it’s a good death.”
This story is part of a partnership that includes KQED, NPR and Kaiser Health News.