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    Oregon board investigates failed assisted suicide

    Terminally ill with cancer, David Pruiett decided to end his life under Oregon's Death with Dignity Act. He went through the legal process, got the lethal prescription in late January, swallowed the liquid laced with powder from 100 barbiturate pills, and fell asleep. Three days later, he woke up and asked his wife why he wasn't dead.

    Pruiett, 42, is the only Oregonian to survive a full dose of the barbiturates prescribed under the state's physician-assisted suicide law. After waking up, he reportedly told his wife that while he was unconscious, God had told him that his action wasn't the way to get into heaven. He died from lung and bone cancer two weeks after his failed assisted-suicide attempt.

    Now the Oregon pharmacy board is investigating the strange case of the Estacada man who was formerly a logger. Karen MacLean, board administrator, declined to give any details beyond confirming that the Pruiett case is under investigation. However, one avenue of board inquiry is whether or not the prescription was properly filled with the right drug or the right drug strength.

    While the pharmacy board is looking into the Pruiett matter, the state department of human services said it has no authority to investigate individual death-with-dignity cases. The department does issue an annual report of physician-assisted suicide statistics. The 2004 report found that 40 physicians wrote 60 prescriptions for lethal doses of medication. Thirty-five of the prescription recipients died after ingesting the medication. All the prescriptions were for barbiturates; 68% used pentobarbital and 32% used secobarbital. Three patients experienced complications, all related to vomiting. A total of 208 patients have taken lethal medications since the law took effect in 1997. The latest report is posted on the Web at http:// egov.oregon.gov/DHS/ph/pas/docs/year7.pdf.

    The Pruiett case is being used by opponents of a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in California. For example, Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy of Monrovia said the Pruiett case shows that not all of Oregon's assisted suicides are simple and that instead of offering the terminally ill human kindness, the bill offers a "lethal dose of drugs prescribed by Dr. Death."

    Although five fewer patients took lethal medication last year than in 2003, Oregon's overall physician- assisted suicide trend has been upward since legalization. For example, during the first year, only 16 Oregonians used the option; followed by 27 in 1999, 27 in 2000, 21 in 2001, 38 in 2002, 42 in 2003, and 37 in 2004. However, the overall number of terminally ill patients who die from physician-assisted suicide has remained small, accounting for about one of every 800 deaths in the state.

    The proposed California legislation would essentially copy the Oregon law, which voters approved in 1994 and again in 1997 after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge. However, in 2001, the Bush Administration decided to challenge the Oregon law based on its interpretation that the federal Controlled Substances Act bans lethal barbiturate prescriptions. Federal courts have so far upheld the Oregon law, although the Supreme Court agreed last November to hear then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's appeal in its next term beginning this fall.

    Carol Ukens
    Carol Ukens, a former editor at Drug Topics, is a freelance writer based in New Jersey