Vodka, folk rock and secobarbital: Terminally ill man chooses his last day

Aaron McQ says the hardest decision was exactly when to die.

Story highlights

  • Aaron McQ of Seattle developed leukemia and then a rare form of ALS
  • Although the option of aid in dying is legal, actually carrying it out was difficult
  • He agreed to discuss his decision to shed light on an often secretive and misunderstood practice

In the end, it wasn't easy for Aaron McQ to decide when to die.

The 50-year-old Seattle man -- a former world traveler, triathlete and cyclist -- learned he had leukemia five years ago, followed by an even grimmer diagnosis in 2016: a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
    An interior and urban designer who legally changed his given name, McQ had been in pain and physical decline for years. Then the disease threatened to shut down his ability to swallow and breathe.
    "It's like waking up every morning in quicksand," McQ said. "It's terrifying."
    Last fall, McQ decided to use Washington state's 2009 Death With Dignity law to end his suffering. The practice, approved in seven states and the District of Columbia, allows people with a projected six months or less to live to obtain lethal drugs to end their lives.
    Although the option was legal, actually carrying it out was difficult for McQ, who agreed to discuss his deliberations with Kaiser Health News. He said he hoped to shed light on an often secretive and misunderstood practice.
    "How does anyone get their head around dying?" he said, sitting in a wheelchair in his Seattle apartment in late January.
    Aaron McQ battled leukemia and a rare form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, for five years.
    More than 3,000 people in the U.S. have chosen such deaths since Oregon's law was enacted in 1997, according to state reports. Even as similar statutes have expanded to more venues -- including, this year, Hawaii -- it has remained controversial.
    California's End of Life Option Act, which took effect in 2016, was suspended for three weeks this spring after a court challenge, leaving hundreds of dying patients briefly in limbo.
    Supporters say the practice gives patients control over their own fate in the face of a terminal illness. Detractors -- including religious groups, disability rights advocates and some doctors -- argue that such laws could put pressure on vulnerable people and that proper palliative care can ease end-of-life suffering.
    Aid-in-dying advocates target next battleground states