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Kelly Willis: A Choice, A Right, A Legacy

Kelly Willis is a medical transcription business owner in Peoria, Arizona.

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My dad—my hero—was a formidable man. Near the end of his life, however, a rare and aggressive form of cancer robbed him of his strength. He could have wasted away in a hospital, his body weakening as the terminal illness took his life day by day. Instead, he was able to use the Washington Death with Dignity Act to die on his own terms, with dignity and control.


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A Jack of All Trades

Before he was diagnosed, my father was a vibrant and energetic jack of all trades. He grew up very poor and was the first in his family to graduate from college. The work ethic and tenacity he developed as a young man served him well in the workforce (he was a dentist by trade) and in every passion he pursued.

You name it, he could do it. He raised chickens, kept a huge garden, and converted his garage into a workshop, where he taught himself to make everything under the sun. He became a master metalsmith and woodworker. He was always creating something new.

My mom knew he was dying when he stopped making bread.

A Grim Diagnosis

It was July 2016. My parents, who in their retirement split their time between Seattle and Phoenix, were in Washington state when my mom noticed he had yellow in his eyes. My father was a stubborn German man; he never took care of his own health, so it was up to my mom to convince him to go to the doctor.

The diagnosis was grim: cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. It is extremely difficult to treat. My parents were able to find a surgeon at the University of Washington who was willing to operate on my father to remove the cancer. My father decided he was willing to go through with the procedure.

His recovery from surgery was so horrible. He was so weak.

He and my mom returned to Arizona in the fall where he continued his fight through grueling, time-consuming and weakening chemotherapy treatments. The once-vivacious dentist who spent his life healing others was suddenly at the mercy of medical staff and family to care for him.

“Find a way…to let me die”

As usual, my parents returned to their home in Seattle in April 2017. Dad was scheduled for a follow-up visit with his original oncologist. He went through the motions every day, doing his best to impart happiness (likely for the sake of those of us who loved him so much) but he lived with constant and unbearable weakness and discomfort, and I believe deep down he knew his visit to the doctor would not prove positive. His results showed that the cancer had spread to his gallbladder and liver and there simply was no treatment to reverse the progression.

He had become a terminal cancer patient overnight.

I remember the day he called me and asked me to call his doctor. “Kelly,” he said, “find a way to convince the doctor to let me die.”

I did research and learned about the Washington Death with Dignity Act. When my father discovered that he qualified to use the law, there was no question in his mind that he wanted to do so.

Choosing Death with Dignity

His oncologist was helpful and directive. He gave him information on where to turn and how to seek proper advice. Dad knew in his heart that he did not want to wait this process out until God took him naturally. He was too proud. Too dignified. Too weak.

My daughter and I had planned a vacation to visit my parents and were arriving on a plane coincidentally the same day he received the devastating news of his scan. We discussed his options including death with dignity the entire ride home from the airport. While the terminal diagnosis was mortifying, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

Help from Hospice

We immediately connected with End of Life Washington, setting up meetings with volunteers and learning more about the process necessary to ensure my dad would die exactly the way he wanted to. When he wanted to. At home. Not hooked up to life-saving measures. At peace.

As soon as hospice started treating him, his life turned around. The rest of his life was his own. For the first time in nearly a year, he was finally able to relax and enjoy the remaining months of his life. His time in hospice care provided a venue for my mom and my dad to talk about the hard things, figure out what the future held.

Planning for the End

They spent countless hours reliving their 55 years of marriage, reminiscing about their children, their successes, our future. They devised financial plans, consulted attorneys, and solidified their trust. They were given an opportunity to finally be at peace. No more drugs. No more surgeries. Just two people madly in love and together until they would eventually part.

Dad was a very private and dignified man. He was adamant that he never wanted people surrounding his bedside, grieving over the potential loss of him. He wanted people to remember his hard work, dedication to his family, creative talent in his workshop and most of all how much he loved the people who meant the most to him.

The Final Days

On September 25, 2017 he knew the timing was right. His life had become a groundhog day of lying on his bathroom floor, too weak to shower. He was becoming incontinent and didn’t want my mom to have to clean up after him. He stopped calling his family. He couldn’t find the energy to send a text message. He just knew. Tomorrow would be the day.

The next day, he was surrounded by the End of Life Washington volunteers and my mom. And that’s exactly how he wanted it. That morning he joked about being hungry, laughed with the few people who surrounded him and drank his final cocktail. And he simply went to sleep. No more weakness. No more pain. No more discomfort.

My sister and I arrived shortly after he passed and that very evening we celebrated his life over dinner. There were tears, of course, but the relief each of us felt knowing that he was able to let go when he felt the time was right for him and that he was no longer forced to live a life of existence in pain or discomfort was just cause for celebration.

We all wholeheartedly agreed it was the perfect ending to a (somewhat) perfect life. Dad got to determine his own destiny.

Death with dignity: a choice, a right, a legacy

There are no words to convey the importance of the role that Death with Dignity played in the last year of my dad’s life. We knew he would never suffer (and he didn’t). We knew he would ultimately be the one to choose. And this right in the state of Washington gave his entire family and loved ones the peace to continue to live.

Death with dignity gave my father peace of mind and provided immense comfort at the end. It meant everything to him to die on his own terms, knowing it was his decision and not someone pulling the plug on him.

My passion and advocacy for this cause is a reflection of my love for him and my commitment to carrying his legacy forward.

To me, death with dignity is a personal choice to live and die the way you want to. You don’t have the option to be on this earth, but you should have the option to decide how and when you depart.

(June 2018)

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