Berkeley physician opens end-of-life practice in city

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On Thursday, Berkeley physician Lonny Shavelson opened a health practice that specializes in aid in dying care for terminally ill patients, the same day that the End of Life Option Act — which legalizes aid-in-dying for terminally ill patients — went into effect.

The End of Life Option Act was first proposed by state senators Lois Wolk and Bill Monning, and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 5, 2015. The law legalizes aid-in-dying for patients who have fewer than six months to live and who are willing and able to self-administer the required medication.

Though located in Berkeley, Shavelson’s practice is intended to serve the entire Bay Area, although he said he doesn’t expect to see many patients in his Berkeley office.

“Patients will not be coming to me, I’ll be coming to them,” Shavelson said.

Despite passage of the bill, some California residents still think it’s ethically wrong for doctors to aid in the deaths of their patients. Mariah Marmolejo, the social media chair of Berkeley Students for Life — a club that advocates against abortion, stem-cell research and euthanasia — thinks that legalizing aid-in-dying could put some people into the position where they feel pressured into taking their own lives.

Marmolejo also morally opposes the clinic, adding that she believes true compassion comes through helping people through their pain, not ending their lives.

By offering aid in dying, Shavelson said he hopes to create a dialogue with his patients that will provide them the best possible end of life. He added that in states where the practice is already legal, such as Oregon, this discussion is already happening.

“What’s happened in those states is that people have had the right to say to their physician, ‘I want to die more comfortably and quicker,’” Shavelson said. “The response is usually: Let’s make you more comfortable without that.”

Shavelson’s main goal, he said, is to normalize the practice until most doctors feel comfortable considering it — which he says might not be the case now. He added that he intends to urge patients who come to him to discuss their concerns with the primary care physicians who are most familiar with them and their medical history.

Of the six patients who have reached out to Shavelson, he said he knows five will be better suited without his explicit help, relying on their primary care physicians to assist them. Many doctors in Berkeley have already started the open dialogue with their terminally ill patients that Shavelson seeks to emulate.

“We have thorough conversations with terminally ill patients to understand the factors driving their decision and inform them of all options for end-of-life care,” said Stephen Lockhart, M.D., Sutter Alta Bates’ chief medical officer, in an email.

As more doctors adopt the practice, Shavelson knows his clinic will no longer be in demand — a prospect he welcomes.

“I’m hoping to be entirely out of the picture within a year or two,” he said.

Contact Karim Doumar at [email protected].