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A dog’s gentle death

Our family will always remember this holiday season as the time Sugar died. Sugar was a mixed breed, mostly lab/border-collie type. She exhibited the best character traits of every gene she carried and seemed to bear none of any breed’s drawbacks. She was a real credit to her species.

A member of my daughter’s household, Sugar was one of my “grand dogs,” for whom it was my privilege to dog-sit if her parents went somewhere she was not welcome. Those unwelcome places were few and far between because Sugar met love and enthusiasm everywhere she went. Friends would vie for the chance to keep her when her parents left town. But, I’m proud to say, my daughter believed I was her favorite sitter, so I always got first dibs on her company.

She lived a long time — almost 16 years — as her humans’ constant companion. Sugar was an enthusiastic participant in daily life, hikes, camping excursions and road trips. She accompanied my daughter to work at a neighborhood art gallery, hanging out on her bed and greeting patrons with gentle good will. She never forgot a face, and offered a smile and nudge of the nose to those she knew. She waited patiently outside restaurants and stores until her people reappeared, came to church and dozed in the corner during choir practice. Of course she attended social and family gatherings, and her birthday celebration was not to be missed as the highlight of the barbecue season.

During her long life Sugar taught us about living well. She taught us about playing and having fun. She taught us the importance of relationships and acknowledging our loved ones in small ways, each day. She taught loyalty and how to abide, steadfast during hard times. In the end, she taught about dying well, too.

Over the past few years deafness, poor vision and a variety of ailments slowed Sugar down and took their toll. Hip degeneration, leg weakness, recurrent bladder infections, a variety of benign tumors, stomach ailments — all these and more called forth the best in veterinary medicine. When her appetite diminished and she lost 15 percent of her body weight, we hoped the prescribed steroids would perk her up and renew her zest for life.

It was not to be. Sugar took to her bed, stopped eating and drinking, and withdrew from communal interaction. My daughter sent out word that Sugar was dying and the time had come, for those who wished, to stop by and say goodbye. Many, many did. For two days a steady stream of visitors came to Sugar’s bedside, told her how they loved her and shed a tear. Sugar acknowledged them with a weak tail wag, but continued her separation from this world.

One last time they brought her to the Oregon coast, her favorite place and what would be her burial ground. In the same cabin where she rested after so many joyful afternoons chasing balls and sticks in the surf, she spent a quiet night and drew her last breath.

As intentional and gracious as she was in living, so she was in dying. Instead of going off to a hiding place in the woods, Sugar let us witness, share and learn from the natural ending to a life complete. That’s how generous was her big, big heart.

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Barbara Coombs Lee is President of Compassion & Choices, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding and protecting the rights of the terminally ill. She practiced as a nurse and physician assistant for 25 years before beginning a career in law and health

Since then she has devoted her professional life to individual choice and empowerment in health care. As a private attorney, as counsel to the Oregon State Senate, as a managed care executive and finally as Chief Petitioner for Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, she has championed initiatives that enable individuals to consider a full range of choices and be full participants in their health care decisions.

Ms. Lee took her undergraduate education at Vassar College and Cornell University and obtained advanced degrees in law and medicine from the University of Washington and Lewis & Clark College. She holds an adjunct position at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine and is a member of the Oregon State Bar.

She has been interviewed by NBC News, CNN Crossfire, 60 Minutes, McNeil Lehrer News Hour, NPR, The Today Show, and Bill Moyers’ “On Death and Dying” among others. She has also testified before the US Congress on end-of-life issues.

She has been recognized with a national health Policy Fellowship, Boeringer Ingeheim Foundation, an American Jurisprudence Award for outstanding performance in the study of medical law and a National Health Lawyers Association scholarship for outstanding student achievement.

Ms. Coombs Lee has been a presenter at programs sponsored by American Bar Association, Older Women’s League, American Pain Society, Oregon State Bar, Americans for Better Care of The Dying, American Associations for the Advancement of Science, End of Life Concerns, and the American Pain Society. She spoke at the World Federation Right to Die conference in Zurich, Boston and Brussels.
Her audiences have included the Oregon Gerontological Association: the California Nurse Assembly & Education Conference. Her debate “Doctor Assisted Suicide: Compassionate Alternative or Murder” with James Bopp, Jr., was produced by “Justice Talking” a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center
for Public Radio.

Since Gonzales v. Oregon, the lawsuit defending the Oregon assisted-dying law, Ms. Coombs Lee has been interviewed by many of the nation’s newspapers. She has been quoted in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Recently, The Harvey M. Meyerhoff Lectures on Ethics at the End of Life hosted her presentation “Local Medical Practice and the Federal Threat” at Johns Hopkins University.