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First year of Colorado’s aid-in-dying law still in “ramp-up” mode

A year ago in November, when Susan and Kurt Huschle cast their ballots among the two-thirds of Colorado voters in favor of the state’s aid-in-dying law, they viewed the measure with the personal detachment of a distant what-if.

Three months later, Kurt faced a terminal diagnosis of a rare bile-duct cancer. Pain mounted exponentially, blasting through his medication. His once-sturdy frame rapidly diminished. And suddenly, the theoretical idea of ending his life with a doctor-prescribed medication became a very real option — one he desperately wanted to have in hand.

“We voted for it,” Susan recalls, sitting at the kitchen table where she and her husband first heard the news that he didn’t have long to live. “But we didn’t know anything about it.”

On July 16, exactly seven months after the law went into effect, Kurt took aid-in-dying medication and died, at 58, in his bed at the couple’s Highlands Ranch home. But the process, from paperwork to prescription and finally to practice, bred frustration, stress, uncertainty and ultimately a wife’s panic in his final hours.

Their experience reflected the gap between concept and realization that has characterized the law, which took effect one year ago Saturday. While physicians, pharmacists and hospice workers sorted out their roles in the process, patients sometimes struggled to connect with willing doctors, procure medication and implement their final wishes.

Experiences varied as Colorado became one of seven jurisdictions — along with Oregon, Washington, Montana, California, Vermont and the District of Columbia — to allow patients to choose the option.

“I think many people have the perception that immediately after the law becomes effective, everyone would be able to immediately and easily access it through their own medical providers,” says Kat West, national director of policy and programs for Compassion & Choices,  the national nonprofit that drove the initiative for the medical aid-in-dying measure. “That’s just not reality with any new law.”


She spotted him walking toward her in the hallway of a McDonnell Douglas Aerospace building in Huntington Beach, Calif. It was 1987, and Susan was a struggling single mom with three sons. Kurt was a year into his first job out of college. They smiled at each other as their paths converged at the coffee room, but neither spoke.

But the chance meeting with the handsome guy made an indelible mark on Susan.

Kurt Huschle about 1996 in Huntington ...

Courtesy of Susan Huschle

Kurt Huschle about 1996 in Huntington Beach, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Susan Huschle)

“A week later, I had a very vivid dream of this mystery guy where we were at an amusement park on some sort of ride with water splashing about,” she recalls. ” He was sitting behind me holding me tight and it felt like love, stability and happiness. These intense feelings lasted for weeks.  I knew I had to find this guy.”

She did. Though he was five years younger — she got lots or ribbing for robbing the cradle — they carved out a life together despite the challenge, for Kurt, of suddenly becoming a stepfather. But he grew into that and, years later, even more enthusiastically embraced the role of grandfather.

Susan characterizes her husband with a wide array of descriptors. Engineer, drill sergeant, intellectual. Cro-Magnon man, sports buff, bookworm. But the guy with the off-kilter sense of humor came wrapped in a sunny personality and an irresistible smile. They talked on the phone constantly, often several times a day, to the point that relatives kidded them about acting like teenagers.

“We didn’t care,” Susan says. “We were in love. … It turns out my dream was a revelation that Kurt and I were meant for each other. The love he gave me healed so much pain in my life. Every night Kurt told me, ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ ”

Eventually, she would assume the role of caregiver after Kurt’s cancer diagnosis, and do her best to help him fulfill his choice to end his suffering through aid-in-dying medication. Susan, searching for help amid their frustration with the health care system, read about an Aurora man, Herb Myers, who shared the story of fulfilling his dying wife’s wish to take advantage of the new law.

She sought his counsel and imagined that the final time she spent with her husband would unfold as peacefully as it had for Myers and his wife. But the couple found preparation difficult. The pursuit of the prescription consumed months, and as Kurt’s condition deteriorated, both of them hesitated to broach the subject of exactly how they envisioned the end.

Susan didn’t want her feelings to influence Kurt’s final wishes. And she figures that both of them stayed silent to protect the other from dealing with a painful subject.

“We didn’t take that time to plan anything,” she says. “Then he deteriorated to the point where I was afraid to bring it up, and I think he was afraid to bring it up. We were each in our own minds thinking: How is this going to happen?”


Compassion & Choices now counts 81 health care facilities and 16 hospices statewide with policies supporting an individual’s choice to pursue aid-in-dying. Catholic-affiliated systems opposed the initiative on religious grounds and do not participate, and some other facilities are still formulating policies. Still, West says, doctors faced with an aid-in-dying request for the first time may need time to consider it.

The organization has created a tool called Find Care that can help individuals identify facilities or hospices that support patients’ end-of-life choices. It does not point patients to specific doctors because that would hurt access by creating bottlenecks and inhibiting the integration of the aid-in-dying option into the health care system. Compassion & Choices also offers a statewide map of health facilities and hospices that support the option.

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