Kyle Jensen / The Record — Wells gives a final embrace with a friend after her discussion at Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuesday afternoon.

Death with dignity: Freeland woman fights to make assisted suicide less taboo

Vocal, independent and opinionated, Theo Wells has spent much of her life sparking dialogues about difficult topics such as gender inequality.

These days, she is putting her energy toward another cause very personal to her: end-of-life planning and normalizing the taboo subject of death.

Wells, 90, elected to invoke the Death With Dignity Act after becoming terminally ill from congestive heart failure. Assisted suicide is something Wells has pondered for some time, even before the initiative passed in Washington in 2008. Planning for the end of one’s life is something many want to avoid, deny and run away from until they’re facing their final days.

She chose Sunday, Feb. 12, as her last day. Close family will be by her bedside.

Take care of dying

For Wells, it’s important to publicize her experience for those who have thought about assisted suicide, but who might, for various reasons, be reluctant to express their interest.

“A lot of people are curious about this, but they don’t want the world to know,” Wells said. “I’m not trying to peddle it. But I have chosen to exercise it. To me, that’s the whole point of the law: to have the power over my own life.”

Wells remains very much in control. Sitting down with The Record Thursday at her Freeland home, her confident and no-nonsense personality easily over powered her visible frailty and the hum of a nearby oxygen machine. Her answers to questions were crisp, thought-provoking and loaded with character; strong statements were often followed with a wink to a reporter.

Being in control of her own life is one of her guiding values. It comes naturally.

“That goes with an independent spirit, and I am an independent spirit,” Wells said with a wry grin.

Wells leaves behind a book, “Take Care of Dying — Get On with Living: End-of-Life Planning that Works,” that addresses the Death With Dignity Act and how to plan for and navigate the process. Published last year, the book uses her personal experience to cover the key steps one must take before writing their will and potentially losing the ability to care for themselves. Vital steps such as hiring a durable power of attorney, writing a health care directive and following one’s own values are touched upon. It’s Wells’ hope the book will provide readers with vital information on a subject hardly discussed or even considered before it’s too late.

“If you don’t think about dying, and most people don’t, death is vague and always tomorrow,” Wells said. “You don’t really get into it until you approach the age where you better start thinking about it, not when you’re a 23-year-old reporter.”

Friends, family and community members gathered Tuesday afternoon at Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeland for a public discussion celebrating Wells’ life, where the audience listened to what she had to say about the different facets of the assisted suicide process. Regardless of their personal views on assisted suicide, the audience seemed unanimous in supporting Wells’ choice. One after the other, many said their last goodbyes and shared a final intimate embrace with a woman who has always been a bastion for activism and standing up for what one believes.

“Theo has always wanted to start a community conversation — that’s just who she has always been,” Nikki Coyote, a friend, said. “She loves community conversation because she loves to include others, and believes there’s no conversation that can’t be spoken about. I think this is a conversation this country and many of us need.”

It’s my choice

Not everyone close to her shares the same views on assisted suicide. The legality has been debated across the country for years, and remains illegal in most states. Washington was the second state to legalize assisted suicide after Oregon became the first in 1997. That debate is no different among friends and family. Coyote is both a principal at Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Freeland and a health care worker, and she wrestled with her own feelings about the issue. In the end, much like others close to Wells who were unsure about assisted suicide, she realized choice trumped anything else. If Wells wants to have autonomy until the very end, and elects to end the pain from her congestive heart failure, so be it.

“I think the most powerful thing for Theo is that choice is everything,” Coyote said. “In being a health care provider, I’ve learned that it’s about them and the freedom to make their own choices. Sometimes those freedoms are taken away, and that is not life.”

Wells says she is not particularly religious, but “in other ways very much so.” Risking the breach of another taboo, she said she’s been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 37 years, a 12-step program based on spirituality and reliance on a higher power.

“If you spend 37 years in an important program like that, it leaves a mark on you,” Wells said. “I can’t see going without mentioning it. If I broke the rules, I think I’ll be given some forgiveness.”

Death with Dignity

It is unclear how widely utilized the Death With Dignity Act is in Island County. Instances of assisted suicide don’t go through the coroner’s office, since the manner of death is clear, Island County Coroner Robert Bishop said. Any data on the number of assisted suicides would come from the county health department’s registrar office, which is closed on Fridays. Bishop also suspects that some who practice assisted suicide do so illegally, not undergoing all the state-required steps. He’s seen deaths that appeared to fit, but it’s not something he can prove, he said.

Friend Terra Anderson said this is not a decision Wells made without giving it serious thought. She said that ultimately choice and control have always been key for Wells, be it for feminist causes such as the right to control her body, or for the right to die.

Wells says she is not afraid of what she is calling “the event.” She isn’t, however, immune to moments of doubt. When asked if she was frightened, Wells showed a rare moment of vulnerability, admitting that the possibility of backing out at the last minute is there, scratching at the back of her mind. But it’s fleeting. She made up her mind long ago that this is what she wants, and that hasn’t changed.

“90 is long enough,” she said.

Anderson and Wells also point out that quality of life is a large part of the equation. Wells is adamant she does not want a life where she can no longer care for herself and is constantly suffering from pain, as well as being an economic drain to her family.

“My husband and I watched our parents deteriorate slowly in front of our eyes, and they weren’t happy about it,” Anderson said. “That experience is why this is so important. We don’t have many people like Theo who are as well educated about the law, have written about it and know how to use it.”

Nice girls can decide too

Although tough for Wells’ family, she says they have supported her desire to remain in control of her life. Those close to her are well aware of her demand for choice and control. That demand is evident in the fire in her eyes that continues to burn. Wells says she realizes it may make her come off as a “control freak,” but she refuses to have her values compromised.

Using her own experience of going through the assisted suicide process, Wells wants to publicize the issue so others can look to her experience for guidance or information. But along the way, she also wants to remind people to never back down and to never compromise their values.

And she’s doing it with strength and grace.

“One of my central values is that I’m able to exercise my choice,” Wells said. “I was raised to be a ‘nice girl,’ and when you’re raised that way, you follow the rules for nice girls.”

“But I need to be in control and exercise my choice. I think I ended up being fairly nice, but I don’t agree with everything. Nice girls go along and I don’t always go along, and I want people to know that’s OK.”

Justin Burnett / The Record — Theo Wells chats with The Record Thursday morning, three days before the day she selected as her last.

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