Laura Weil: How We Die

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Many have seen images of those dying in hospitals during the pandemic – alone, hooked up to tubes and machines – and said, "that’s not for me." Laura Weil’s friend did something about it.

Dying well in a pandemic isn’t easy. It takes planning and attention to detail. My beloved friend Fran struggled with serious, chronic illness her entire life. She began planning for her death 20 years ago.

Fran had spent plenty of time in hospitals over the years, and always made the best of it. She charmed every staff member, provider and even her hospital roommates.

I think Fran never planned to die in a hospital, but the pandemic made that idea absolutely horrific. Fran was a woman of community and loved having friends and family nearby.

When it became clear that her battle to survive was drawing to a close, Fran approached her care providers about the Death with Dignity Act. This 2016 California legislation allows terminal patients to access a cocktail of medications to end their life. It is difficult to qualify. She had to demonstrate that her illness was terminal, that she was not being coerced, was not depressed, and was of sound mind and able to make such a permanent decision.

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Fran easily qualified. The medications sat in her closet for a year. It gave her peace to know that each morning she was making a conscious choice to stick around.

Last month, Fran asked her husband to get the medications down from the shelf in the closet. She called her friends and family, letting them know of her plan to take the medications that night. She got to say her good byes.

With the pandemic raging, Fran allowed two friends to be as close to her side as social distancing allowed. Her brave husband sat beside her while she drank the cocktail and, faster than any of us expected, quietly and peacefully died. She showed no sign of pain. It was exactly as she had wanted it.

While most people will not qualify for the Death with Dignity Act, many will choose to die at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to examine many of our practices, but perhaps none more carefully than how we die. In the United States, only about a third of us die at home. Now, during the pandemic, when dying in a hospital means dying alone, the idea of dying at home has taken on new meaning and urgency. Fran showed me just how beautiful that choice can be.

With a Perspective, I’m Laura Weil.

Laura Weil is a certified nurse midwife living in San Francisco.