A Social Worker With ALS Makes The Decision To Guide Her Own Death
By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
LOS ANGELES — The dishes she used to scrub after each family dinner pile up by the sink. The husband who sweetly called her his trophy wife cries alone in the room where he now sleeps. The 11-year-old son with big brown eyes who once cuddled on her lap now hardly comes near her.
She can’t move. She can’t talk. She can only blink her eyes.
Angie Bloomquist was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis less than two years ago. Since then, the fatal illness known as Lou Gehrig’s disease has shut down just about every muscle in her body. The toll on her family has been almost as devastating.
“It’s like a tornado ripped through our home,” Angie says. “And destroyed everything we built.”
She speaks through a special computer that tracks her eye movement, a painstaking task that exhausts her after a few sentences.
Still, in her final days, Angie finds herself pushing more than ever — for the choice to die through doctor-prescribed medication.
Proponents know it as “aid in dying.” Opponents call it assisted suicide. Since it was legalized in Oregon in 1994, there have been dozens of attempts to have similar versions approved in nearly 30 states. All have failed, except four: Washington, Vermont, Montana, and New Mexico.
In California, the issue hasn’t been brought before lawmakers or voters since 2007. This year, buoyed by the story of Brittany Maynard, who left her Bay Area home for Oregon to carry out her legally assisted death, supporters have geared up for another try.
One bill is making its way through the Legislature. Recently, two lawsuits were also filed against the state aiming to legally protect physicians.
Angie, who says she knew long before she was diagnosed that she would want to hasten her death if she became severely incapacitated, joined one of those lawsuits this month.
“I know how I want to live and know that that life is no longer possible,” she says. “The right to die should be my right.”
The fingers on her right hand twitched and she had trouble typing. She became exhausted walking from the parking lot to her office at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach, where she was a social worker. One day, leaving work, she inexplicably lost her balance and fell hard on a staircase.
About 30,000 Americans live with ALS. Half of them die within two to five years. Breathing gradually becomes more difficult, and often, patients suffocate. Cases like that of famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has lived with the disease for more than 50 years, are a rare exception.
Angie, ever the realist, immediately began planning for her death. She had spent 23 years as a social worker, the last decade in hospitals watching children fight futile battles against ruthless diseases. She had guided families, preparing them for their child’s death.
Fred widened doorways, built a side deck and a wheelchair ramp and remodeled the bathroom to make room for a commode. Soon after Angie was diagnosed, he organized a ceremony to renew their vows. Beneath two white ash trees in their backyard, his wife giggled as he tried to explain, using the lyrics of his favorite love songs, how much he loved her.
He has to be strong for Angie — a woman who used to shush rowdy neighbors in her pajamas at 3 a.m. and throw bouncy castle parties for some 20-plus 5-year-olds. When he cries, he cries alone in his room, off the kitchen.
The Bloomquists thought of going to Oregon, but qualifying for the law could take months. Angie also considered refusing food and slowly drifting to her death through sedation, but that’s not how she wants to go.
Proponents are ready to go to the ballot in 2016 if the pending legislation fails. Tucker believes a court decision is the best way for California to win approval. She’s had recent success with similar lawsuits in Montana and New Mexico and has another one pending in New York.
Despite the traction supporters have gotten recently, the issue faces great opposition. Doctors, Catholic leaders and some disability rights advocates object on ethical, religious and medical grounds.
“If assisted suicide is approved, it would result in many lives ending without their consent,” says Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “No safeguards have ever been enacted or proposed that can prevent that outcome, which can never be undone.”
Golden says combining a profit-hungry health care system with assisted suicide could result in patients being denied care and steered toward dying. Heirs and caregivers could also become abusive, and mentally ill or suicidal patients who are not terminal would have few safeguards to protect them from killing themselves.
As for Angie, attorneys say they plan to lobby the court for a special permission to help her die as soon as possible — at her home, with her family by her side. She entered hospice care recently and may not have more than a few months to live.
Then, like a stork carrying a sleeping child, Ganuza uses a hydraulic machine with a giant sling to lift Angie’s limp body from the bed onto a commode. She wheels her into the shower, dresses her, combs her hair and transports her in the sling to her recliner.
Her loved ones have stitched together a round-the-clock schedule of care, with one relative watching over Angie each day of the week. They bring food, do laundry, wash dishes, sweep the floors. Fred handles weekends.