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Though Paul Cary Goldberg just lost his wife, Lee Marshall, last Thursday, he remained adamant that he would tell their story.
“I’m doing this for Lee,” he said this week.
Lee Marshall, 69, of Gloucester, was a nurse and a psychotherapist. She also, since 2018, had been undergoing continuous chemotherapy to treat stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Marshall’s diagnosis was terminal, and though life dealt her a difficult hand, she remained committed to being able to die on her own terms.
It’s not that Marshall wanted to die. But the inevitable was on the horizon for her, and she wanted to pass away peacefully.
“I was fully expecting to live to my 80s, but I probably won’t see 70,” she wrote to state lawmakers in a letter urging them to legalize medical aid in dying in Massachusetts. “I desperately want to live, but I am dying. There is no miracle that will rid me of my cancer and the multiple tumors throughout my body.”
Medical aid in dying has been a contentious issue throughout the country. There are activists on the other side of the table who argue that it should not be legal. Some of their arguments include that doctors can make mistakes, or that some who’ve used the law were depressed, or going through other mental health challenges.
But for someone like Lee, that legislation wouldn’t come fast enough for her to use it. Instead of accepting that, the husband and wife, who had been together for 42 years, decided to do something that is taxing and stressful even for the healthiest of people – move across the country to New Mexico so that Marshall could take advantage of the medical aid in dying law there.
Ten states across the country allow medical aid in dying, including Maine and Vermont, as well as Washington, D.C. But New Mexico became the couple’s destination because the law there is much more accessible.
“There is less of a chance that I will run out of time before completing all the steps necessary to access this option,” Marshall wrote in the letter. “To prepare for this possible move to New Mexico, I have made a down payment on a lease starting Feb. 1, and am working to find New Mexico healthcare providers to care for my medical needs now and who are willing to provide medical aid in dying once I meet the requirements.”
The trip wasn’t easy.
“It was exhausting physically and emotionally,” Goldberg explained.
The trip included a changeover in Atlanta. The couple found living arrangements from an acquaintance who used to live in Gloucester.
“Leaving home was awful,” Goldberg said. “It was a very bumpy two weeks trying to get settled, trying to find some kind of normalcy, so the move to New Mexico was pretty miserable. Lee’s death was peaceful, but most things leading up to that were not.”
The couple was hoping Marshall would be able to live a bit longer and they could make some memories there together. They packed up essentials and a couple of boxes of things they might need, which they shipped.
“Practically speaking it was laborious, and emotionally quite raw,” Goldberg said.
Accessing services in New Mexico was more simple than in other states, Goldberg noted. The infrastructure of the law was already in place so that the care existed. There were already doctors and hospice set up. The waiting period is just 48 hours, versus 15 days for the proposed law in Massachusetts, and the current laws in Maine and Vermont. The two New England states also require that two doctors confirm patients meet the state’s requirements; in New Mexico, being enrolled in hospice is an automatic qualification, so the second confirmation isn’t needed as long as the hospice provider is a doctor.
Even with care ready for her, Goldberg said that it was difficult leaving their community behind in Gloucester. Marshall didn’t want to die, and the two hoped to be able to spend more time together. However, her physical health continued to deteriorate, and her time of death moved closer.
“The idea that we had to leave a home, a community, familiarity, and we had to be in a place where we knew nobody, had no support, until some friends came down the night she died,” Goldberg said. “It just infuriates me that we were forced to make this decision.”
Goldberg described Marshall as “my defiant one.”
“She was a force,” he said. “She was intelligent, loving, active, loving being alive and wanting every ounce of it. She was creative, she was as loyal a partner, a supportive partner. She was caring. She was hardworking. She made me a better person.”
Though Marshall spoke and advocated for the law to pass in Massachusetts even while being so sick, Goldberg said that’s just the way that she was. She wouldn’t think of it as courage, he said.
“She did what she did and was who she was,” he said. “It was not a matter of courage, it was a matter of conviction and perspective.”
Marshall knew, he said, that eventually her disease would diminish her quality of life.
“There’s a point at which the pain and suffering is too much and we should be able to alleviate it,” Marshall said in a video made by Compassion and Choices, an organization that advocates for medical aid in dying.
“A peaceful death for me would be saying goodbye to my friends and then being able to take medication that will allow me to peacefully die while hugging my husband, Paul,” she said.
At the time of her death, Marshall had difficulty rolling over in bed, or lifting herself up, according to Goldberg. Even getting dressed in the morning was difficult.
“It’s not that she wanted to die, it’s that she wanted to not suffer,” he said. “Death was inevitable.”
The night Marshall passed away, the couple laid next to each other in bed. Goldberg said it took less than a minute for Marshall to take the medication. She was asleep soon afterward.
About 45 minutes later, she passed away. Goldberg described her passing as “totally peaceful.”
“There was no suffering for her.”
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