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My review of 'How to Die in Oregon'


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Moving Documentary Follows Woman with Untreatable Cancer


Back-lit shadows move across a gauzy curtain, caught and recorded by a lens sitting outside the bedroom window. There are clear words – disembodied voices by turns singing and saying their good-byes.


Cody Curtis, 54, is preparing to die.


She suffers from terminal cancer of the bile duct in her liver. She has beaten the disease once already by going through chemotherapy and a liver resection that left her bed-ridden for several months.


When the cancer reappears two years later, Curtis takes stock of her options, envisioning what another round of chemo would do to her quality of life and balancing it against her odds of survival.


She eventually decides, after a lot of soul-searching, to use an Oregon law that permits Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS). Oregon is one of only two US states to legally allow this practice.


Curtis’ final days are captured by filmmaker Peter Richardson, whose documentary, How to Die in Oregon, won the coveted 2011 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.


Richardson also introduces viewers to 54-year-old Randy Stroup, an uninsured Oregonian who makes international headlines after receiving a form-letter from the State turning down his request for further chemotherapy and instead offering ‘Death with Dignity’ among the alternatives.


In an interview with The Oreganian, Richardson admits he was at first reluctant to include Stroup in the documentary, suggesting the story would serve only to animate the “bogeymen†employed by lobbyists opposed to PAS. After meeting with Stroup, however, Richardson changed his mind: "I saw how hurt he was by the letter,†he said. “It wasn't just that he was denied coverage. It was that he was told that they would help him die and that he interpreted that as the state telling him to die.â€


Stroup is a tattooed laborer who lives in a run-down trailer, having been retired by cancer from a life of hard work as a logger and fisherman.


His pain is palpable as he tells viewers about the mental gut-shot he received while reading the letter – the sense of having been cast off and abandoned by a publicly funded organization designed to help people in his situation.


Stroup died on July 16, 2009, four weeks after his interview was filmed.


The Definition of Dignity


Richardson doesn’t pretend to offer panoramic coverage of the arguments for and against PAS. He is more interested in the individual experiences of people with life-limiting illnesses, and their unique definitions of ‘dignity.’


For Curtis, dignity means having control over her own life and power over her bodily functions. For Stroup, it means fighting ‘til the end.


There are other people in the film with even more concrete definitions: One of Richardson’s subjects, an 84-year-old man with throat cancer, provides for an interesting case study.


Ray Carnay, a former radio and television broadcaster, shares his overmastering fear of what existence will be like without his voice. His capacity to speak was, for most of his career, the source of Carnay’s livelihood.


Disability rights advocates argue, correctly, that grief is merely a potential first reaction to the experience of losing a physical capacity (such as speech). Newly disabled individuals can bounce back, adapt, and build lives they value and enjoy.


For people suffering from terminal illness, however, Richardson suggests that’s a bridge too far.


This is certainly the case for Curtis, who had been feeling fairly well until the last few weeks of her life, when her body finally begins to succumb all at once to cancer.


And the abilities she is losing – the ability to bathe herself or even to brush her own hair – are not capacities she will get back or have time to properly mourn.


For her, the choice is between dying a little more every day for the next eight weeks or all at once within the space of a few hours.


Personal Choice


Richardson does not offer any serious discussion of palliative care and what such would entail, focusing instead on the Oregon Law and how it is used by those individuals who choose ‘Death with Dignity.’


It is easy to understand Richardson’s decision to forgo balance in favor of poignancy, and yet he does a disservice to his viewers in failing to treat other ways of dying as being equally dignified.


To his credit, however, Richardson does make it clear ‘Death with Dignity’ can coexist with effective pain management and other care offered or discontinued according to each patient’s wish.


For him, and for most of the subjects of his documentary, personal choice is the one that matters most.


SIDEBAR: In Their Own Words


“[H]e was the only man in the world i could look up to for advice he was the best step-dad i could have ever asked for my mom loved him with her heart and i thank you all for praying for him and the family for his loss. Thank you.â€

-- Misty Stroup, step-daughter to Randy Stroup


“But I’ll know when life’s not worth living any more. It’s really nice to have a way out, to die in comfort and with dignity. I don’t want to die bed-ridden and weighing seventy pounds. I want the children to remember me as I am now, in peace and not in pain.â€

-- Cody Curtis, How-We-Die.org


“I’d just as soon not die. But we’re all going to die. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Any of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow, but everyone hopes for something clean and painless, so this is as close as I’m going to come.â€

– Cody Curtis, How-We-Die.org

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  • 1 month later...

Burris, your writing amazes me. And this documentary sounds heart-wrenching.

I feel bad for Stroup. He was told bluntly what other states dance around. Denying coverage is sadly common, only Oregon bluntly says "Go die instead." I don't know which is worse. Both are awful. This shouldn't be happening anywhere, least of all in the country that brags about having the best healthcare in the world.

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