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Intimate aid-in-dying video captures Oregon couple's final days

An Oregon couple who are among the first people who chose to go through with aided death recorded their final days in an intimate documentary.
/ Source: Kaiser Health News

On the last morning of their lives, Charlie and Francie Emerick held hands.

The Portland, Ore., couple, married for 66 years and both terminally ill, died together in their bed on April 20, 2017, after taking lethal doses of medication obtained under the state’s Death With Dignity law.

Francie, 88, went first, within 15 minutes, a testament to the state of her badly weakened heart. Charlie, 87, a respected ear, nose and throat physician, died an hour later, ending a long struggle that included prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease diagnosed in 2012.

“They had no regrets, no unfinished business,” said Sher Safran, 62, one of the pair’s three grown daughters. “It felt like their time, and it meant so much to know they were together.”

Image: Charlie and Francie Emerick after a family croquet game
Charlie and Francie Emerick after a family croquet game at daughter Jerilyn's home in Portland, Oregon in May 2016. They died less than a year later.Courtesy of Jerilyn Marler / Kaiser Health News

In the two decades since Oregon became the first state to legalize medical aid-in-dying, more than 1,300 people have died there after obtaining lethal prescriptions. The Emericks were among 143 people to do so in 2017, and they appear to be the only couple to ever take the drugs together, at the same time, officials said.

The pair, early members of the 1980s-era Hemlock Society, had supported the choice for years, and, when their illnesses worsened, they were grateful to have the option for themselves, family members said.

“This had always been their intention,” said daughter Jerilyn Marler, 66, who was the couple’s primary caretaker in recent years. “If there was a way they could manage their own deaths, they would do it.”

Before they died, the Emericks agreed to allow Safran and her husband, Rob Safran, 62, founders of the Share Wisdom TV Network, of Kirkland, Wash., to record their final days and hours. At first, the video was intended just for family, but then Safran asked her parents for permission to share it publicly.

“I think it can help change the way people think about dying,” she said.

Image: Sher and Rob Safran talk about their documentary "Living And Dying: A Love Story," about the final week of Sher's parents' lives
Sher and Rob Safran talk about their documentary "Living And Dying: A Love Story," about the final week of Sher's parents' lives, in the Safrans' Kirkland, Wash., home on Dec. 12, 2017. Sher's parents, Charlie and Francie Emerick of Portland, Oregon, exercised Oregon's Death with Dignity option together.Dan DeLong / for Kaiser Health News

The Emericks sought help from Linda Jensen, a veteran team leader with End of Life Choices Oregon, a nonprofit agency that supports people seeking to use the state’s Death With Dignity law.

“They were pretty well informed,” said Jensen, who has assisted with dozens of deaths in 13 years. “What they wanted to understand was what a planned death really looks like.”

The video includes a meeting between Jensen and the Emericks two days before they died. It would be nothing like dying on TV, she told them.

“You do not lose control of your bowel or bladder. You do not gasp for breath,” she explained. Instead, she said, they would simply go to sleep.