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Doctor: Helping A Patient Die Will Never Become Routine


When Dr. Katherine Morris lived in Oregon, she assisted two cancer patients with their decision to end their lives. She now lives in New Mexico where she's party to a lawsuit to get the same right for one of her patients there. Dr. Morris is an Assistant Professor in Surgical Oncology at the University of New Mexico. She speaks for herself though in this case, not for the institution, and we reach her at her home in Albuquerque. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: I want you to describe a bit the bar that has to be cleared for somebody to actually take advantage of the law in Oregon as it exists. For example, can any doctor issue the pills of the sort that Mrs. Maynard used or could it even be an online doctor providing a prescription?

MORRIS: To my knowledge, I don't - the law does not address what type of physician provider it has to be, but to my knowledge, it has always been a physician who has had a personal relationship with the patient - a standard that most of us feel very strongly about.

SIEGEL: You've been through this decision as a doctor. How would you describe the experience?

MORRIS: It's interesting. For me, I was a medical student when the law first came up in Oregon and a resident when the law came up the second time in an attempt to overturn it. And I've voted in favor of legalizing the practice of physician aid in dying twice. And then when I completed my training in surgery and did a fellowship in New York and then came back and was practicing in surgical oncology - and I have to say that it's a shock when a patient asks you to be a prescribing physician. And my patient was exceptionally graceful, and she knew it was going to be hard for all of us. And she said take as much time as you need, but I want you to know that this is what I want. It's obviously a very challenging decision for a physician about whether or not they can be involved in this or comfortable with the practice. And it took a fair amount of soul-searching for me to be the prescribing physician.

SIEGEL: You're saying that the patient said I know this is going to be hard decision for you - to take your time with it. That's remarkable.

MORRIS: She's one of the most remarkable people I've ever met in my life.

SIEGEL: Well, what was that soul-searching like? What was the decision process like for you?

MORRIS: You know, I knew what she was facing medically, and I had been taking care of her for just about a year and a half. And I had a lot of mixed emotions about the idea of actually being a prescribing physician and providing this option for her. And I talked to my family and I talked my husband and, you know, thought long and hard about it and decided that I was her doctor, and this is what she wanted and was her decision. And so it was incumbent upon me to support her through it, and so I decided to do it.

SIEGEL: I feel this strange paradox here, which is in a way, I think, I and many people listening are very reassured by how difficult a decision it was for you to comply with the request. But if the practice were to be universal and much more common at some point, could it ever become routine for doctors to act on this request?

MORRIS: I don't think so. I think - I mean, I guess I can only speak for myself as a physician, but no matter how a patient chooses to approach death and dying, its always unique for the patient. And it's always incredibly impactful for the physician. And so I cannot imagine this becoming routine any more than I can imagine helping patients through their illness and their death and dying process in any other way. It's never routine.

SIEGEL: You went very public about this - taking part in an HBO documentary called "How To Die In Oregon." By doing that, did you run the risk of becoming doctor death of New Mexico -attracting a clientele that knew you would say yes?

MORRIS: You know, I guess I do run that risk. It was a frightening thing to be open about this, and I initially didn't really want to be on camera because this was a pretty emotional decision for me. But I heard an opponent talking about - it was right around the time that my patient had used her medication and her life had ended, and I heard an opponent talking about just that - about how there's only a limited number of physicians who do this. And they make their living off of writing these prescriptions. And it was so painful for me to hear - that after having gone through this process and been at this woman's bed side when she took the medications and supported her family - that I felt like - you know what? - they need to hear the story - a different story about physicians who are part of this. But yeah, it's risky, and it's frightening. (Laughter) But I think it's not half as risky and frightening as what my patients are facing.

SIEGEL: Dr. Morris, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

MORRIS: Thank you for asking.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Katherine Morris, who's a surgical oncologist. She spoke to us from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.