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Oregon couples final days captured in intimate aidindying video

Issued: 2018-03-10

By Kaiser Health News

On the last morning of their lives, Charlie and Francie Emerick held hands.

The Portland couple, married for 66 years and both terminally ill, died together in their bed on April 20, 2017, after taking lethal doses of medication obtained under the state's Death With Dignity law.

Francie, 88, went first, within 15 minutes, a testament to the state of her badly weakened heart. Charlie, 87, a respected ear, nose and throat physician, died an hour later, ending a long struggle that included prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease diagnosed in 2012.

"They had no regrets, no unfinished business," said Sher Safran, 62, one of the pair's three grown daughters. "It felt like their time, and it meant so much to know they were together."

In the two decades since Oregon became the first state to legalize medical aid-in-dying, more than 1,300 people have died there after obtaining lethal prescriptions. The Emericks were among 143 people to do so in 2017, and they appear to be the only couple to ever take the drugs together, at the same time, officials said.

In the grip of ALS, Fred Nelligan struggled with when to use Oregon's Death with Dignity law

The pair, early members of the 1980s-era Hemlock Society, had supported the choice for years, and, when their illnesses worsened, they were grateful to have the option for themselves, family members said.

"This had always been their intention," said daughter Jerilyn Marler, 66, who was the couple's primary caretaker in recent years. "If there was a way they could manage their own deaths, they would do it."

Before they died, the Emericks agreed to allow Safran and her husband, Rob Safran, 62, founders of the Share Wisdom TV Network, of Kirkland, Wash., to record their final days and hours. At first, the video was intended just for family, but then Safran asked her parents for permission to share it publicly.

"I think it can help change the way people think about dying," she said.

The result is "Living & Dying: A Love Story," a 45-minute documentary that details the background of the Emericks' final decision and their resolve in carrying it out.

Shot mostly with handheld smartphones, the video captures the intimate moments of the couple's preparations in their last week of life.

Charlie Emerick was a former medical missionary in India and chief of ENT at a Portland-area Kaiser Permanente hospital. (Kaiser Health News is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.) He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2012, after dealing with symptoms of the disease for years. He suffered from prostate cancer and heart problems and learned in early 2017 that he had six months or less to live. In the documentary, he described his thoughts as he pondered whether to use aid-in-dying.

"You keep going, Charlie, you're going to get worse and worse and worse," he explained to Sher Safran, in a quavering voice. "The other can't be worse than this."

Francie Emerick, who handled marketing and public relations for the hospital in India, appears vital and articulate in the video. Her daughters, however, say that her energy was fleeting and that it masked years of decline following multiple heart attacks and cancer.

In the video, Francie acknowledged that she could have survived a bit longer than her husband. But, she said, she didn't want to.

"Charlie and I have a rather unique relationship in that we have done and been so much to each other for 70 years," she said.

The pair carefully followed the specifics of the law, which requires examinations by two different doctors to determine a prognosis of six months or less to live, multiple confirmations of intent and the ability of patients to ingest the lethal drugs themselves. The process takes a minimum of 15 days.

"We do want it to be legal," Francie said.

The video traces the arc of the couple's lives. The Emericks met as college students in Nebraska, married on April 4, 1951, and spent years in the 1960s as medical missionaries in Miraj, India. Dr. Emerick's career took them to Southern California and then to Washington state, to India and ultimately to Oregon, all while raising three girls. In 2004, they moved into an apartment in a retirement community in Portland.

That's where the Emericks died on a cloudy Thursday last spring, six days after a family celebration that included their children and grandchildren -- and, at Francie's request, root beer floats. The gathering was happy, but bittersweet, family members said.

"There were moments that they expressed great sadness at the goodbye that was coming," Marler recalled.

The Emericks sought help from Linda Jensen, a veteran team leader with End of Life Choices Oregon, a nonprofit agency that supports people seeking to use the state's Death With Dignity law.

"They were pretty well informed," said Jensen, who has assisted with dozens of deaths in 13 years. "What they wanted to understand was what a planned death really looks like."

The video includes a meeting between Jensen and the Emericks two days before they died. It would be nothing like dying on TV, she told them.


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