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Local activists believe in the right to die with dignity

Posted: March 17th, 2017 | Features, News, Top Stories | No Comments

By Delle Willet

Family physician, Dr. Mitsuo “Mits” Tomita, and CSI agent, Kerry Perkins, have several things in common, the most notable being that they both serve on the board of the Hemlock Society of San Diego, and believe in choice, dignity and control at the end of life.

Dr. Tomita, M.D. of San Carlos is retired from Kaiser Permanente where he was a popular family physician. Since retiring, he has worked part-time in community health centers in the San Joaquin Valley, and is an Assistant Clinical Professor on the voluntary faculty of the UCSD School of Medicine, where he continues to teach medical students and residents.

Dr. Mitsuo “Mits” Tomita (Courtesy of Hemlock Society of San Diego)

He also serves on the board of the Hemlock Society of San Diego, a right-to-die advocacy group, which he has been a member of since its beginning in the 1980s. He is responsible for finding local, national and international speakers who are leaders in their field to speak at the society’s free monthly presentations and discussion programs and film series.

Tomita, 68, believes that medicine has made great advances in extending our lives and fixing some disabilities. But, at some point, these advances involve prolonged dying.

“The ‘do no harm’ admonition attributed to Hippocrates is too black and white, whereas, the physician must always weigh the risks versus the benefits of any action taken or not taken,” he said. “Often, by offering more technology to extend life, we have caused suffering and misery. It would frequently do less harm to offer people a quick and peaceful death.”

Dr. Tomita feels we can do this now, for eligible patients, with California’s End of Life Option Act which permits doctors to provide a prescription for medication that can provide a dignified and peaceful, hastened death.

“Not utilizing this law often is doing harm and is more a violation of the Hippocratic oath than trying to do more and more to essentially prolong suffering,” he said.

Medical-aid-in-dying is the allowing of an individual facing an incurable and fatal disease the ability to request and receive medication to allow one to die peacefully. This has been allowed in Oregon for almost 20 years, and is now allowable in California. Dr. Tomita was actively involved in previous ballot initiative efforts in California to allow physician aid-in-dying, which preceded the success in Oregon in the 1990s.

Although previously opposed by the California Medical Association, the CMA took a neutral position on aid-in-dying. Polls of the public as well as physicians have shown progressive support for allowing medical aid-in-dying for those who choose to do so.

Kerry Perkins of Allied Gardens says her career has been a long string of various jobs and endeavors but two stand out as the most impactful on her.

Kerry Perkins (Courtesy of Hemlock Society of San Diego)

As an eligibility technician with the County of San Diego, deciding who can and cannot receive public social assistance, Perkins carried a case load of 50 families. Those were the most depressing two years of her life.

“However, I learned to deal with, and be understanding and compassionate about people from all walks of life,” she said.

From 2004 to 2014, in Perkins’ second impactful career as a crime scene specialist, the majority of her clientele were dead. She spent over 11 years investigating crime scenes and processing evidence in the lab.

“I became very comfortable with death,” she said.

Perkins, 63, says she can’t pinpoint a definitive moment in which she realized she supported self-chosen death with dignity, but she watched her mother struggle through three brutal years of dementia and Parkinson’s before her natural death.

“It was during that time that any vaguely positive feelings I had about death with dignity became crystallized,” she said. “When I learned about the Hemlock Society and met Mits at one of their programs, I was excited, and signed up to be a volunteer.”

Since then she has become a member of the board and has taken on the role of publicist for their monthly films and lectures.

“I joined the society to be a part of a larger movement that is actively working to change the public’s perception of death and to educate and empower individuals to live the end of life that they choose. I am honored to be an active board member in this endeavor. I’m fueled by my dedication to the cause and my desire to see the public become aware of and be educated in their end-of-life options. Everyone should have the legal right to choose his or her death with dignity and control,” she said.

Hemlock Society of San Diego founder Dr. Fay Girsh (Photo by Richard N. Cote)

San Diego’s Dr. Faye Girsh founded the Hemlock Society of San Diego 30 years ago. She served on Hemlock’s national board and essentially succeeded its founder, Derek Humphry, as executive director until it merged with a smaller organization in 2004.

Girsh and Humphry were two of the founders of another national organization, Final Exit Network.

In 2003, she was awarded Hemlock’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2016 she was the recipient of the Marilyn Sequin award from the World Federation of Right-to-Die Societies for her service in promoting death-with-dignity in the U.S. and internationally.

Dr. Girsh received her doctorate in Human Development from Harvard University. For 18 years, she practiced as a clinical and forensic psychologist in San Diego. For the last 25 years, she has appeared in debates and speeches all over the U.S. and Europe.

From the very beginning, the Hemlock Society has been offering the San Diego community information about their options for a peaceful death. Expanding choice, control and dignity at the end of life — which is their mission — has been happening gradually since they started.

Many members have been with the society since the beginning, including three members of the current board.

“Loyalty and commitment are exceptional assets; we’ve been fortunate to have abundance in our past and current board members and donors,” Girsh said.

There are two Hemlock chapters left, one in Florida and one in San Diego, which has always been one of the most active. The Hemlock Society of San Diego remains the only right-to-die group in the U.S. with free, public, monthly meetings which are held in at the Mission Valley Library.

The society newsletters and web page bring the community the latest developments in thought, politics, and progress in choosing a peaceful death. Their speakers are local, national and international leaders. For more information, visit hemlocksocietysandiego.org.

—Delle Willett is a public relations consultant and freelance journalist. Reach her at dellewillett@gmail.com.

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