The day former sports anchor Frank Fu Da-ren (傅達仁) was scheduled to die via physician-assisted suicide marked the end of his personal battle with terminal pancreatic cancer and public fight for right-to-die laws in Taiwan. But June 7 was also the beginning of a new chapter for a family that had put everything on hold for the previous three years.
Fu, who passed away at the age of 85, garnered national attention and revived the “death with dignity” movement in Taiwan when he flew from Taipei to Zurich, Switzerland and spent NT$3 million to die on his own terms at the Swiss Dignitas clinic.
In Taiwan, assisted death remains a taboo subject. Proponents of right-to-die gained a small victory with the passage of the Patient Right to Autonomy Act (病人自主權利法) in December 2015. Set to be enacted on Jan. 6, 2019, the law stipulates that with advanced written directive, patients with one of five clinical conditions can request physicians to partially or fully withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment, artificial nutrition and hydration.
Illustration: Angela Chen
From the moment they learned of his diagnosis, the lives of Fu’s family were upended. His son stopped working and the family was afraid to go out for dinner or travel. His sickness meant Fu took frequent trips to the bathroom and would often wake to a soiled bed.
“It was a nightmare that never seemed to end,” David Lee (李恕權), Fu’s godson, tells the Taipei Times. “At any moment my godfather would have to go through another operation or treatment. His son was always on edge, mentally and physically. I was afraid that he might take his father’s medication himself.”
Fu had originally asked Lee to make arrangements for his death in Los Angeles where, under California’s End of Life Option Act, medically aided death is legal. When no hospital in Los Angeles would accept medical records from abroad, the family settled on the Swiss non-profit.
During his research, Lee sifted through more than 120 pages of Fu’s medical records, finding that Taiwan’s medical system had put Fu and his family, in Lee’s words, “through the washing machine” with MRIs and blood transfusions.
“I began to think, ‘is this godly?’” Lee says. “Were all of these extreme measures being taken to save this guy’s life part of God’s plan? Maybe his time really was up.”
Touted as the first of its kind in Asia, the Patient Right to Autonomy Act is a significant step in making Taiwan more “death literate,” says Huang Sheng-Jean (黃勝堅), superintendent of Taipei City Hospital.
The act also introduces “Advanced Care Planning” provisions that provide a platform for families to discuss end-of-life care with medical professionals.
Huang advised legislators closely in drafting the law and has been a leading voice for end-of-life care. He says that the past 30 years have seen Taiwan make meaningful strides in prioritizing patient dignity. But the next step for lawmakers is to consider how death impacts those left behind.
“Nowadays, when we talk about high-quality healthcare, we include the physical, psychological, spiritual and social well-being of the patient,” Huang says. “We should be aiming for the most humane, overall care and that means letting the living live better. Apart from having control of the way you go, patients should think about their family members as well.”
Because Fu documented his journey with daily Facebook updates and high-profile media appearances, his family had no choice but to endure the public scrutiny.
“We were all so irritated and angry with the endless articles and posts,” Lee says. “We couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just go quietly and peacefully. People at church would beg him to stop attracting so much attention because it was like he was promoting death.”
Lee, like Fu, is Christian, and had always struggled with the concept of assisted suicide. But the more hoops Lee witnessed the Fu family jumping through, the more he saw the necessity for a right-to-die law.
In the last few years of his life, doctors close to the family would offer Fu medications privately to put him out of his suffering, Lee says. But Fu was adamant on using his celebrity and media expertise to advocate for the right-to-die.
Recognizing the power he wielded, Fu was still on his phone posting status updates as he sat on the sofa waiting for the 25 minutes between the first and second doses to pass, despite being criticized for being overly dramatic and receiving Facebook comments such as “why don’t you die already.”
A ‘GOOD DEATH’
The simply decorated bedroom where the legendary anchor died was the picture of order and tranquility — a departure from the chaos that Fu’s family had grown accustomed to for years. As Lee left the Dignitas house with the rest of the family, he was consumed with an overwhelming feeling of peace.
The most valuable realization for Lee came a week after he returned home from Switzerland. For the first time in years, Lee saw Fu’s wife and son relaxed and smiling.
“My godfather’s death brought new life to them, and I thank [him] for making such a decision,” Lee says.
It may be some time before other families are offered the same relief. Before assisted death is legalized, Huang says people must understand that a “good death” ensures that both the patient and the family are cared for.
“Our level of death literacy is nowhere near reaching that understanding,” he says. “It’s like asking a kindergartner to apply for college. The skyscraper might be physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, but we have to make sure our foundation is stable first.”
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