Terminally Ill California Mom Speaks Out Against Assisted Suicide
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In California, a bill to allow physician-assisted suicide is moving forward. Last fall, a terminally ill 29-year-old named Brittany Maynard galvanized right-to-die supporters with videos explaining why she wanted to end her life. She did so in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal. Well, now another young woman is sharing her story, but she wants people to draw a different conclusion. Stephanie O'Neill from member station KPCC reports.
O'NEILL: It's lunchtime on a spring break afternoon. Stephanie Packer of Orange, Calif., is crowded in the kitchen with her four children - 11-year-old Brian, 10-year-old Scarlett, eight-year-old Jacob and five-year-old Savannah.
STEPHANIE PACKER: Do you want to help?
JACOB: I do.
S. PACKER: You have to wash your hands if you want to help.
O'NEILL: She directs the chaos as the kids vie for their chance to help Mom make chicken salad sandwiches. For Packer, these are cherished moments. In 2012, after she suffered a series of debilitating lung infections, her doctor told her she had scleroderma. It can cause fatal hardening of the skin and other organs and had settled in her lungs.
S. PACKER: And I said, OK, well, what does this mean for me? And he said, well, you have about three years left to live.
O'NEILL: For Packer, the illness requires nearly full-time oxygen. She's also in pain and takes a variety of medications for it and a slew of other related conditions. Some days, she says, are good. Others are consumed by low energy and pain that only sleep can relieve.
S. PACKER: For my kids, I need to be able to control the pain because that's what concerns them the most.
O'NEILL: Packer was 29 when she got her terminal diagnosis, the same age as Brittany Maynard. But unlike Maynard, Packer says physician-assisted suicide will never be an option for her.
S. PACKER: Wanting the pain to stop, wanting the humiliating side effects to go away - that's absolutely natural. And I've absolutely been there, and I still get there some days. But I don't get to that point of wanting to end it all because I do have the tools to understand that today is a horrible day, but tomorrow doesn't have to be.
O'NEILL: She and husband Brian are devout Catholics. They agree with their church that doctors should never hasten death, even, Brian, says in the face of a challenging, incurable disease.
BRIAN PACKER: God put us here on the Earth, and only God can take us away. And He has a master plan for us, and if suffering is part of that plan, which it seems to be, then so be it.
O'NEILL: The Packers also believe the California legislation and laws in five states where assisted suicide is legal create the potential for abuse. Pressure to end one's life, they fear, could become a dangerous norm, especially in a world where medical care so expensive. Stephanie hopes terminally ill people will instead consider palliative medicine and hospice care.
S. PACKER: Death can be beautiful and peaceful, and it's a natural process that should be allowed to happen on its own.
O'NEILL: Even, she says, when it poses uncomfortable challenges. Brian's traded his full-time job at a lumber company for weekend handyman work so he can care for Stephanie and the children. The family moved into a smaller home, a two bedroom apartment they share with their dog and two pet geckos. Even so, Brian says life is good.
B. PACKER: I have four beautiful children. I get to spend more time with my wife that most husbands do.
O'NEILL: Stephanie agrees.
S. PACKER: My lungs are going to give out, which will make my heart give out. And I know that's it's going to happen sooner than I'd like and sooner than my family would like, but I'm not making that my focus. My focus is today.
O'NEILL: Stephanie Packer is hoping she can get a lung transplant that could give her a few more years, she says. In the meantime, this month marks three years since her doctor gave her three years to live, so every day, she says, is a blessing. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill.
BLOCK: This story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, KPCC and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.