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Physician-assisted suicide: Daughter says it would have stolen mom's 'best' week

Jeanne Nau with her husband, Jim.
Jeanne Nau with her husband, Jim.
Courtesy of Teressa Syta

KPCC's health team  is providing ongoing coverage of the debate over physician-assisted suicide, now that the state legislature is considering SB 128, which would legalize the practice in California. As part of our coverage, Impatient is featuring people's stories about how they or a loved one dealt with an end-of-life situation. 

Today I'm sharing the story of Teressa Syta of Los Angeles, who reached out to share why she's grateful the physician-assisted suicide option wasn't available when her mother was dying.

'The best week'

In 2003, Syta says her mother, Jeanne Nau, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given three months to live. Nau was initially determined to fight the disease, Syta recalls.

But soon, despair set in.

"She had all the symptoms of a person who was quite depressed," Syta says, adding that her mother had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, didn't want to shower and didn't want to see anyone.

Nau was an extroverted piano and organ teacher. With her diagnosis, it seemed as if "she didn't have anything to look forward to," Syta says. "She lost her motivation to do anything."

"This was the time that if physician-assisted suicide were law, she would have had the option to commit suicide and it would have looked attractive," Syta writes to Impatient.

That dark period lasted about a month. At that point, Nau couldn't go to the bathroom without help and had difficulty eating, notes Syta. She was under the care of hospice in her home: Thanks to their help, she was in less pain, but she was clearly dying.

Then, to Syta's surprise, her mother emerged from her depression.

When Syta came to visit one day, "she had a smile on her face and she said, 'tell everybody to come,'" Syta recalls. "She had been telling us to keep people away, and then she said, 'I want to see people now.'"

Family members and former music students heeded the request, and visited Nau at her home.

"A lot of people came, expressing how much she had done for them, how much she meant to them, and how much they loved her," Syta says. "There was also another aspect of being at peace with life as it was lived - and death."

Syta says her mother declared at one point, "this was the best week of my life."

Jeanne Nau died about 48 hours after she made that statement. She was 63. 

'After the depression' 

Looking back, Syta is grateful that her mother had the opportunity to transition to a more peaceful place before her death. 

If physician-assisted suicide had been an option at that time, and her mother had chosen it during her period of depression, "we would have missed out on something very beautiful and very healing," Syta says. "She never would have been able to say, 'this was the best week of my life.'"

She says her mother's experience could bring hope to other terminally ill patients.

For many, "it's extremely common...that they go through a period of depression," she says. But "most people don't realize what can happen after the depression."

The other lesson Syta draws from her own mother's death is that natural death should not be painful.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide say it would prevent needless suffering at the end of life. But Syta says good quality end-of-life care can effectively minimize any pain. Relatives and loved ones would benefit from better education and support as well, she says.

"We need better end of life care in our homes, not methods to kill the patient so we don't have [to] treat their pain," she writes.

The conversation continues

Tell us your story about your experience with end-of-life situations. 

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