Terminally Ill Coloradans Deserve the Option of a Peaceful Death

By Julie Selsberg

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on August 18th. 

My dad, Charles Selsberg, was diagnosed with ALS after experiencing a rapid decline in his ability to breathe, swallow and walk for more than a year and a half. As his body hurtled toward complete atrophy, he repeatedly said he was not scared of dying; he was scared of how he would die.

Charles Selsberg wrote an open letter to Colorado legislators in 2014, asking them to legalize medical aid in dying for terminally ill patients like himself.
Charles Selsberg wrote an open letter to Colorado legislators in 2014, asking them to legalize medical aid in dying for terminally ill patients like himself.

What he wanted was to die at home by going to sleep and never waking up. What he sought was medical aid in dying. That wasn’t an option, so he took the only viable path he could see to control the manner of his death: he starved himself.

It took his body 13 days to shut down. Thirteen days of suffering on top of nearly two years of a devastating decline. It was beyond terrible.

I am now one of the named proponents on the Colorado End of Life Options Act that gives terminally ill adults access to self-administered aid in dying medication if, like my dad, their suffering becomes too great in the last stages of the dying process. This measure, which is a statutory change, not a constitutional amendment, will be on November’s ballot.

My family’s experience has given me many reasons to be a proponent on this measure.

I am a proponent because if my dad could have had the prescription in hand, it would have given him the peace of mind to be present in our last months together, instead of being preoccupied and terrified about an ALS death.

I am a proponent because my dad chose to stay here, with us, and experience dying in whatever form that would be, rather than move away, without us, to a state where medical aid in dying was legal.

I am a proponent because as much as I wanted my dad to celebrate my daughter’s 11th birthday and see my son as the lead in the school play, I couldn’t force my wish on his will. It was his body that was putting him in lockdown; it wasn’t up to me to decide when he’d had enough.

I am a proponent because it is not OK to say, “If you want to end your dying, starve yourself, it’s easy.” That is insolent, callous and offensive. Saying one can “just starve” is as cruel as ALS itself.

I am a proponent because I sat with my dad, holding his hand, as he lay in a drug-induced stupor which was intended to ease his suffering but only ended up making his last days grotesque.

I am a proponent because my dad’s final moments of life are seared into my memory as I watched the muscles in his neck strain as he tried to take in air. It was like watching him drown without any water.

I am a proponent because the proposed law is modeled after the Oregon law that has been in effect since 1998, and I have read the reports and seen the statistics. Oregon’s track record demonstrates that the law brings comfort, not abuse.

I am a proponent because I know there are safeguards in the process, and because nobody, neither patient nor doctor, has to participate if it’s not their belief. It is a personal choice.

I am a proponent because I believe qualified patients can make these decisions, and I trust our doctors to offer all options, including treatment, palliative care, pain management and hospice.

I am a proponent because I believe that giving this option to the terminally ill who want it is not harming anyone who doesn’t.

One of the last things I told my dad before he died was that I would work to make aid in dying an option for Coloradans. Now I also am asking you, as my dad did two years ago, to show mercy on the terminally ill. Please.

Julie Selsberg is an attorney in Denver, and is the co-petitioner for the Colorado End-of-Life Options ballot measure.