By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Ben Dolin sighs deeply as he recalls the promise he made his wife, Eva, on her deathbed. “I told her I wouldn’t let her suffer,” he says, pausing to collect himself. A thoughtful man of 77, with pale-blue eyes and a powerful, resonant voice that belies his age, Ben has hardly any regrets from his 45 years of marriage to Eva. Just one: “To this day I feel that I failed her. She asked me to end her suffering, and I couldn’t.”
(Illustration by Mr. Fish)Eva had seen enough suffering in her lifetime. As a 19-year-old Jew in Nazi-occupied Greece, she stood and watched as her parents were herded onto a train bound for the German death camps. She herself managed to escape, sneaking her way to the Italian Consulate in Salonika. A gifted linguist, fluent in five languages, Eva managed, in a perfect Venetian dialect, to convince Italian officials to keep her safe. She was so persuasive that she was able to stay hidden in the consulate of an occupying power for the duration of the war.
“She was an amazing woman with an incredible thirst for life,” says Ben. “This was a tough cookie.”
After the war, Eva moved to California, where she eventually met Ben, who was 10 years her junior. The couple married in 1955 and moved to Encino, where Ben worked as a corporate director for Security Pacific Bank and Eva as a language instructor. “French tutor to the stars,” says Ben, laughing. “Everybody knew her. She was practically a celebrity herself.” The couple had three daughters and enjoyed traveling the world whenever they had the chance. “I was a lucky man to have had such a life,” Ben says.
Then in 2000, while on a Tahitian cruise, Eva found herself nearly crippled by intense abdominal pain, which turned out to be colon cancer. Initial surgery to remove the tumor went poorly, and chemotherapy and radiation proved ineffective in containing the spread of the disease. Eva’s condition was terminal. “She couldn’t walk, she couldn’t go to the bathroom by herself,” says Ben. “When she wasn’t sleeping, she was either sedated or in excruciating pain. What kind of life is that?”
After more than two years of fighting the disease, trapped in a hospice bed with no prospects for recovery, Eva pleaded with her husband to help her end her life. He agreed, telling her he would do all he could. Privately, Ben pulled one of Eva’s doctors aside and asked if there was anything he could do to help her “accelerate the process.” But the doctor brushed Ben’s questions off without responding. Despite repeated legislative attempts to legalize the procedure, assisting suicide was and remains against the law in California, punishable by jail time. Ben and Eva’s pleas were ignored. Shortly thereafter, hospice officials began scrutinizing the application of Eva’s pain medication to make sure Ben wasn’t stockpiling to give her an overdose. “If I did anything, I was going to be charged with manslaughter,” says Ben. “It was Kafkaesque. This was my wife, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to help her.”
Eva’s suffering continued for weeks, until she eventually began to refuse food and water. Her doctors began to institute the legal practice of terminal sedation — in which she was essentially medicated into a coma and was to be kept that way until she died of “natural” causes. Days later, Eva began wheezing severely. “I asked the doctor what was wrong,” says Ben, “and he told me, ‘Oh, that’s normal. She’s drowning from the fluid in her lungs.’ ”
Ben slept beside her that night. When he awoke the next morning, Eva was silent. She had died in her sleep. “This is humane? Letting my wife drown to death?”
Experiences like the Dolins’ are common in California, and for the past three years, as state legislators have attempted to legalize assisted suicide, these stories have dominated the discourse in the right-to-die debate.
A Nobel laureate in chemistry in 1997, former UCLA professor Paul Boyer lost his adult son Douglas to kidney cancer in 2001. A true advocate, Douglas Boyer fought to obtain the legal right to die peacefully up until his last breath. Moved by his son’s efforts, Paul Boyer took up the fight where his son left off. “It was terrible watching him suffer,” says Boyer. “I think Nobel Prize winners have an obligation to help smooth the interface between science and society, and this was an issue I wanted to get involved with.”
In June of 2006, Boyer went to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers in support of Assembly Bill 651 — a right-to-die measure for terminally ill patients. Boyer spoke at length to legislators and the media and even wrote a personal plea to Santa Ana state Senator Joe Dunn, whose committee vote would determine whether the bill would go to the floor in the Senate. But despite those efforts and the support of roughly 70 percent of Californians, AB 651 never made it out of Senate committee — failing by one vote. Catholic lobbying against the bill was fierce, and after consulting with his bishop, Joe Dunn refused to give his support.