April 07, 2020

Widow of bill’s greatest backer tells his story

With all of the arguments by lobbyists, emotional testimony by terminally ill people, cautions from lawyers and ethical questions from clergy at a public hearing on doctor-assisted suicide Monday, one voice was missing. Dr. Channing Washburn, one of the most outspoken advocates of the bill, died this fall at his home in Bar Harbor.

He was one of only a handful of doctors in the country who not only said he supported the concept of physician aid in dying, but helped terminally ill people hasten their death.

And his death in many ways illustrates the mysteries, medical and spiritual, that surround the issue. The “Death with Dignity” bill in Maine is one of many state initiatives to radically change the way that people think about the end of life, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has sent the issue back to the states to decide.

It won’t be an easy decision; not even in Oregon, where there was popular support for the law after which the Maine bill is modeled. After it passed in a referendum, it was stopped by the Legislature, re-established by referendum vote, and has now been held up by federal regulations on how doctors dispense potentially lethal drugs.

Washburn’s decision was not easy, either.

He knew that he was going to die; knew it even in 1993 when he married Carol Woolham, because after a lifetime of smoking he had emphysema. When he spoke, it was a raspy sort of a choke, a struggle to force words out, but the words were often eloquent about his controversial belief that everyone has a right to choose to die.

He was not silent; he sent a letter to the journal of his alma mater, the Tufts University Medical School, about the need for doctors to rethink their role as healers only. He sent a letter to doctors and friends about how to help someone die: how many barbiturates, how long it would take. It is not illegal to spread information, but it is illegal to help someone.

Because he was retired, he did not have to worry about losing his license to practice — he only had to worry about being arrested.

At the end of a full life as a World War II soldier, country doctor, city psychiatrist, and — very briefly — lobster fisherman, after retiring as a doctor on Mount Desert Island in 1986, Washburn’s focus turned more and more to death.

Woolham said she spent “many, many hours” on her knees, praying for acceptance of the time when he would decide that the only thing ahead was suffering and dependence, when he would choose to kill himself. When that time came, after four years of marriage, she felt ready — as ready as anyone could feel in that situation. “When you’re living that close to the bone,” she said recently, “you know.”

He told his family and friends goodbye, planning to die the next day. He needed oxygen to breathe, so all he had to do was turn off the machine. That night, Woolham said, she asked him to wait for daylight, and he told her, “`I’d really like to do this on your timetable, but I just can’t — I can’t wait.”‘

“He was so ready,” she said. She told him to put his legs up on the bed to be more comfortable. But before he could disconnect the machine “he took one little breath, and another, and he was gone,” she said.

He died of a heart attack, she said. “He planned his death, but in the end, God took him away,” she said. “It was a miracle.”

Because so many people knew of his beliefs and his plans, rumors quickly spread that he hadn’t died naturally. “I was the only one there,” she said, and the heart attack “was a gift, a rare gift.”

Woolham said that despite her agreement with her husband that people should have a choice about dying, “If it were up to me and I could have him for another day, I would. I just wish for his presence with me.

“I found his jacket in the car the other day, a little windbreaker he had,” she said slowly, through tears. “And it — it smelled like him still. … Just touching it, the sense of it … those kinds of feelings are all I have now of him.

“I look back on this and on his death,” she said, “and I’ll have as many thoughts about it as I have days to live this life.”

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