Dan Swangard knows what death looks like.
As a physician, he has seen patients die in hospitals, hooked to morphine drips and overcome with anxiety. He has watched dying drag on for weeks or months as terrified relatives stand by helplessly.
Recently, however, his thoughts about how seriously ill people die have become personal. Swangard was diagnosed in 2013 with a rare form of metastatic cancer.
To remove the cancer, surgeons took out parts of his pancreas and liver, as well as his entire spleen and gallbladder. The operation was successful but Swangard, 48, knows there’s a strong chance the disease will return. And if he gets to a point where there’s nothing more medicine can do, he wants to be able to control when and how his life ends.
“It’s very real for me,” said Swangard, who lives in Bolinas, California. “This could be my own issue a year from now.”
That’s one of the reasons Swangard joined a California lawsuit last month seeking to let doctors prescribe lethal medications to certain patients who want to hasten death. If he were given only months to live, Swangard said, he can’t say for certain whether he would take them.
“But I want to be able to make that choice,” he said.
The right-to-die movement has gained renewed momentum in California and around the nation following the highly publicized death of an East Bay woman with brain cancer. Brittany Maynard, 29, moved to Oregon to take advantage of its “Death with Dignity” law and died in November after taking a fatal dose of barbiturates prescribed by her doctor.