Waiting for California’s aid in dying law in order to have a peaceful death

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The cancer, which he first noted as a spot on his ear in 2012, has steadily spread in the years since and metastasized into a series of cancerous lesions that appear throughout his body, especially in his skeletal system.” The cancer lesions have also spread to his brain and the most recent tests show they’re growing.

“And those are the ones that will take you,” says Matt. “You can rot a leg, or you can stabilize a bone, but there’s only so much space in the head.”

Matt Fairchild in his Burbank apartment with one of his beloved cats. Matt says California’s aid in dying law gives him some sense of comfort and a feeling of control that he’ll be able to end his life with dignity and on his own terms. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Even as he receives chemotherapy treatments, undergoes surgeries and takes an arsenal of medication, Matt accepts the likelihood that he’ll lose his battle with cancer, with his last days possibly spent in extreme pain.

But Matt has found comfort in California’s soon to be enacted aid in dying law. If he can live until the law takes effect on June 9th, he’ll control when his life ends by taking a legally-approved lethal dose of medication.

Matt doesn’t know at what point exactly he’d take the drug that could end his life but he says it’s comforting to know it will be in his medicine cabinet if his suffering becomes too great.

“And at that point it will be nice to have on the shelf, needed or not, and then you’ve got it if you need it,” says Matt.

The lockbox Matt keeps by his bed with the medication he takes to fight his cancer and remain stable. To get an aid in dying medication, Matt will have to make multiple requests from doctors with a period of waiting in between. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But before he gets a prescription for a lethal dose of medication, Matt will have to meet the requirements of the aid in dying law, which are meant to protect the terminally ill from being coerced into taking their own lives or acting rashly. They include physicians determining that their patients have less than six months to live and are mentally capable of making his own health care decisions.

Those seeking the medication must make two verbal requests for the drugs 15 days apart and one written request that’s signed, dated and witness by two adults. Only then will patients get the pills to end their lives, most likely a powerful barbiturate like secobarbital.

“I want the date to come and see it start,” says Matt. “When I see that first person use it and know that it’s available, I’ll know it’s working now in California.”

If Matt decides to end his life, he says he won’t wait until the very end to take the medication, especially if the pain is just too intense and he sees the suffering that causes among those he loves.

“Why would you wait seven or eight days with your family kind of sugar-footing around you?” says Matt.  “When you can stop everyone and say, “Let’s make it a celebration.”

If he’s very weak near the end, Matt says he will depend on his wife Ginger to help him take the medication.

“She would have to crush the pills up and mix them into a liquid,” says Matt. “Other than that she would be supportive, and she wouldn’t want to watch me in pain.”

Matt says he’s made his peace with the idea of taking his own life. “I am more scared of seven days before the end than I am the moment I cross over, because everybody is going to cross over, everyone,” says Matt. “What matters is the violence, or the peace with which you go.”

Matt with his wife Ginger as he receives tests at UCLA’s Medical Center. Courtesy: Ginger Fairchild (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the last moment of his life, Matt says he hopes to be thinking of  his wife Ginger, with the feeling of her hand in his as he slips peacefully away.

“If you are cognitive enough to know that someone’s hand in yours and you are looking at somebody, and you can feel that they are looking at you, that’s worth six days of life as opposed to possibly losing myself and feeling there is a cold death waiting for me.”