A dying woman’s last wish is a farewell gift for her canine companion
Victoria Worthington shares a moment with her dog Gi-gi Wednesday at Orchards Assisted Living in Medford. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
With the help of a social worker and a donation from a Brookings hotel, a Medford woman’s final wish is coming true.
Hospice patient Victoria Worthington will load her best friend’s Toyota Prius with a wheelchair and five boxes of medicine, oxygen bottles and other supplies Thursday and head to the Oregon coast, where a room in front of the sea.
As much as she longs for a day of exploring life beyond her routine of assisted living checkups and trips to malls down the street, Worthington says her last wish is for her support dog emotional, Gi-gi, how is it for her.
“It means the world because she’s my world,” Worthington said.
‘Let go with love’
During an hour-long interview that touched on a wide range of emotions, from gratitude for the efforts of the Asante hospice staff to plans to end her life by taking advantage of the death with dignity law of ‘Oregon through medically assisted suicide, Gi-gi rushed to kiss Worthington. tears every time she started to cry.
“You’ll notice there’s no tissue in this apartment,” joked Asante hospice nurse Molly Deem.
The sand-colored terrier mix that has served Worthington for nine years has never breathed mountain air from a car window or escaped to the beach due to terminal overlapping heart and lung conditions of his master that hinder Worthington’s mobility.
Worthington delights in the thought of Gi-gi experiencing new sights, new sounds, chasing seagulls and “that new smell”.
It will also be a glimpse into Gi-gi’s life without her. The trip with her close friend Kat Finwall will serve as a “warm handover” for Worthington the puppy-raised dog she has trained herself to take the next steps in her end-of-life journey.
“I’m giving him what he needs and letting go with love,” Worthington said.
Death on its terms
Worthington said she is speaking publicly about her plans for a medically assisted suicide because she wants to break the stigma of death.
“Society has been afraid of death for too long,” Worthington said. “The barrier must be broken.”
Under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, adult patients who meet specific qualifications, such as a diagnosis of a terminal illness likely to kill them within six months and the ability to take and communicate their own medical care decisions, lethal doses of drugs can be prescribed that patients can take to end their lives.
In 2021, medically assisted suicide accounted for a small portion of Oregon’s deaths. The Oregon Health Authority estimates that death with dignity accounted for 0.59% of deaths in the state last year. About 3,280 Oregonians have obtained prescriptions for drugs under death with dignity since 1997, and 2,159 have died from ingesting the drugs.
In 2021, twelve Jackson County residents took their own lives by ingesting lethal doses of medication under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, and since 1997, 145 Jackson County residents have died by medically assisted suicide.
Worthington is diagnosed with aortic and mitral valve stenosis, atrial tachycardia, and congestive heart failure, although he has had a previous stay in hospice for interstitial lung disease. In plain English, that means Worthington has two failed heart valves and an abnormally fast rhythm in a heart that often doesn’t pump blood either. This is combined with a condition that causes progressive scarring of the lungs, for which Worthington was previously under hospital care.
A “friend till the end”
Less than four years ago, Worthington and the friend who promised to be by his side when he died were strangers.
That quickly changed when Worthington arrived at Celia’s House hospice for her lung disease in 2019. Finwall was a bedside volunteer at the nonprofit facility converted from a historic mansion owned by the co-founder of Harry & David, Harry Holmes.
“I don’t want anyone to die alone,” Finwall said.
Worthington said she will never forget how Finwall introduced herself when she first arrived in her room at Celia’s House.
“She just walks in, flops down in a chair and says, ‘I’m Katherine.’ I’ll be your friend to the end,” Worthington said. “A woman of her word.”
Finwall said that “from day one” of Worthington’s arrival in 2019, the two understood that she would provide Gi-gi’s next home.
“Victoria will call Gi-gi her ‘heart,’ and that will be the hardest thing to let go,” Finwall said.
The lung condition eventually improved to the point that Worthington had to leave Celia’s home, but Finwall stayed in touch, continued to visit, and continued to advocate for her.
Making your wish come true
Although it’s Finwall who will be loading half his Toyota Prius with oxygen bottles and a rented wheelchair to accommodate Worthington’s last wish, Finwall credits the Asante hospice social worker , Elizabeth Allred, for making the trip possible.
Worthington was admitted to Asante’s hospice program in February after a trip to the emergency room resulted in a terminal diagnosis for her heart conditions. He has expressed gratitude for the program which has provided him with regular visits from bathroom attendants, nurses, a chaplain and a social worker.
“I’m finally clean and comfortable,” Worthington said. “That’s a gift in itself.”
Allred carefully considered Worthington’s specific needs, such as wheelchair accessibility and the need for a comfortable chair where Worthington can sleep upright, and then cold hotels on the Oregon Coast. He got a yes from the Beachfront Inn in Brookings.
“They decided they would donate an oceanfront king room for the night,” Allred said, “which was very generous.”
Allred said the effort to organize a beach trip goes beyond her regular duties, but she tries to fulfill the last wishes of hospice patients. He said sometimes it’s a final visit with someone, sometimes he facilitates a tough conversation to give the patient reassurance.
“And sometimes it’s those big kinds of things that really help people relax in their end-of-life process,” Allred said.
Your next steps
Allred, Finwall, and Worthington’s registered nurse described efforts to arrange for Celia’s return home. Finwall and Asante hope to move Worthington there potentially as soon as Friday’s beach trip ends, but deals were still pending as of Wednesday, so the timing is still uncertain.
A key stipulation at Celia’s House is that Gi-gi can visit her but not come with her. Allred described the trip as Worthington’s “first opportunity to sit down” and see Gi-gi’s bond with Finwall, beginning the process of “emotional transmission.”
Finwall said Worthington needs to be at Celia’s House so he can have “beautiful memories at the end of his life.”
“I also see it as a way for her to focus a little more on herself,” Finwall said.
When Worthington returns to Celia’s house, he will take the next steps in his end-of-life journey.
Worthington has already obtained the medicines in three bottles, which he keeps in a ceremonial box. She said she has a specific date in mind, but is keeping it between her and Finwall.
Worthington takes 24 pills a day for his ailments, but the main medication to end his life is like no other medication he’s ever taken.
The 158 grams of powder marked “C DWD MS/A 1/10” is in a black bottle. Next to him in the box are two pill bottles containing doses of metoclopramide for relaxation and ondansetron for nausea, Worthington shared.
According to Deem, the Worthington nurse, lethal medication in medically assisted suicides under Death With Dignity varies by patient, but can include a combination of valium, digoxin and high-dose morphine. Anti-nausea medication is usually given first.
Worthington said he has heard religious opponents of Oregon’s assisted-suicide law describe the spiritual consequences of medically-assisted suicide, but he said he has his own interpretation.
“All it says is, ‘Don’t destroy your temple,'” Worthington said. “It doesn’t say don’t take medication to help ease your suffering. . . . It doesn’t say anything about assisted suicide.”
Even without this spiritual perspective, Worthington described the fears of the afterlife only go so far.
“The fact is, I’m in hell,” Worthington said.
He described the pain in his lungs as a cut to his skin with a rusty knife. When he runs out of oxygen and can’t breathe, it makes the pain worse.
“When I have the episodes that I have, I ask for mercy,” Worthington said.
He takes these 24 pills a day to function, many of them pain relievers, along with oxygen and insulin.
Their quality of life is declining. Six months ago, she enjoyed arts and crafts, such as dyeing clothes. These days, sweeping her one-room apartment in her assisted living and doing the dishes is difficult without getting more and more rest.
“My cardiologist told me he’d be willing to give me five years if I let him open my chest, and I’m thinking, ‘Five more years of this?’ No, no,” Worthington said. “That’s not living; that’s existing.”
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