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Widow backs physician-assisted suicide: Wife 'needed that right'



Deborah Reuter-Zsarko, left, says her wife, Michelle Ann Reuter-Zsarko, needed the right to decide when to die. Michelle died March 1, 2015.
Deborah Reuter-Zsarko, left, says her wife, Michelle Ann Reuter-Zsarko, needed the right to decide when to die. Michelle died March 1, 2015.
Courtesy of Deborah Reuter-Zsarko

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Earlier this week, I asked people to share their experiences with end-of-life choices. The post was part of our ongoing coverage of SB 128, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide in California.

We've received a lot of feedback on the legislation on KPCC's Facebook page. (You can click on "comments" to read the online discussion.)

Facebook post

Many people expressed their support, and described seeing a loved one die, slowly and painfully.

"I support this in memory of my mom, who endured unimaginably terrible terminal suffering from a Glioblastoma," Jennifer Harris writes. "Until you or a family member is there, you don't get it."

A few expressed concerns with the bill. "This is not our decision to say if you're ready to die or not," writes Yvette Galvan. "The only one who says it's your time is the Lord."

Deborah Reuter-Zsarko sent me the 20-minute video below. 

'I want to go to sleep'

In the video, Deborah explains - at times in graphic detail - how her wife, Michelle Ann Reuter-Zsarko, fought vulvar cancer for more than seven years. She shows photographs of a vibrant woman becoming thinner and sicker.

By February of this year, it became clear that Michelle was dying. Instead of spending her last days in the hospital, Michelle decided she wanted to die at home, Deborah says.

One night, Michelle lay in bed, but couldn't get comfortable in any position. "I want to go to sleep," Deborah recalls Michelle telling her. "The pain has reached the point where I want to go to sleep. I can't do this anymore."

That was the moment Deborah knew her wife was ready to die. Michelle lived for four more days.

Deborah spends the rest of the video describing the challenges of those final days.

Every thirty minutes, Deborah gave her wife doses of two intravenous drugs: Dilaudid for pain and Versed for comfort. Deborah recalls that she hardly slept or ate during this time. She says she could've asked for help, "but it was important to both of us that this be the thing that I do."

Despite Deborah's best efforts, Michelle's pain and discomfort continued. She developed a wet cough and struggled to breathe. Her palliative care doctor called this a "death rattle," Deborah explains in the video, letting out a sigh of incredulousness at the term.

Soon Michelle started moaning. It sounded like she was in pain, but the doctor explained the death rattle had moved into her throat.

On March 1, Deborah says, Michelle finally passed away. She was 38.

'Power and Choice'

Besides being sad about Michelle’s death, Deborah says she felt guilty, too, since she had been administering Michelle's last drugs.

But her grief turned to anger on March 13, when she watched "Oprah" and saw Dan Diaz describe how he and his wife, Brittany Maynard, had moved from California to Oregon so she could take advantage of that state's Death With Dignity Act.

The 29-year-old Maynard, who had terminal brain cancer, took medication to end her life. Michelle never had that option, Deborah says, since it was not practical for them to move to Oregon.

Michelle should have had the right to die that night that she said she was ready to go to sleep, Deborah says.

"To be able to say, 'I'm ready, I can't do this anymore, I want to do it this way and take a pill and be done...' she needed that right," Deborah says. "And other people need that right."

She concludes the video with this call to action: "SB 128 needs to pass, to give people back their power and choice."

Deborah is in Sacramento Wednesday, hoping to share Michelle's story with legislators and the media.

The conversation continues

Tell us your story about your experience with end-of-life situations. 

If you'd like to share your story, you have several options: You can leave a note in the comments section below, email us at Impatient@scpr.org, or simply fill out this form.