Contest Entries

His Final Choice: Reflections on Life, Death and a Lethal Dose of Seconal / Controversy and Choices

Entrants: Tahlia Honea

Affiliation: Skagit Valley (Wash.) Herald

Consumer/Feature (small)

Year: 2011

Place: First Place

Provide a brief synopsis of the story or stories, including any significant findings.

Judges’ comments: There have been many stories about the legislative, legal and ethical arguments surrounding Washington’s Death With Dignity legislation, but few that have presented the emotional impact of the decision on a patient and his partner with the direct elegance of “His Final Choice” from the Skagit Valley Herald. Tahlia Honea’s sympathetic but honest treatment of Robert Goode’s terminal cancer, his long and loving relationship with Eve Syapin, and above all, the comfort he drew from knowing he could end his life on his own terms – even though he put off taking his pills until death was very near -- highlight one impact of the law that few have spoken about. It took skill and determination to follow this story to its sad but emotionally satisfying end. Scott Terrell’s straightforward photographs – in particular his appealing cover portrait -- added detail and depth to our understanding of the major characters. Details about the law itself, the difficulty people have finding doctors who will prescribe life-ending drugs, and inclusion of opinions from people on both sides of the issue added the proper context to a first-rate report and a fine example of character-based storytelling.

Provide names of other  journalists involved.

Scott Terrell, photographer
Dick Clever, editor
Bev Critchfield, editor
Carissa Wright, copy editor, page designer

List date(s) this work was published or aired.

See this entry.

Provide a brief synopsis of the story or stories, including any significant findings.

"His Final Choice" follows Robert Good through terminal cancer and his choice to fill a prescription for drug that would end his life. The story delves into the emotions surrounding physician aid in dying, including the anger, compassion and acceptance of Good's life partner Eve Syapin. Good gives insight into the fear and pain of throat cancer in its final phase. Most of all, the story highlights the comfort Good felt by having the choice to end his life within an arm's reach, without the stigma of suicide. (Under the Washington State Death With Dignity law, physician aid in dying is not considered a suicide). Though the story set out to be one of following someone using the prescription, what emerged is a much more subtle narrative about the comfort of simply having the choice. The side story "Controversy and choices: Doctors, activists stand on both sides of the issue" explores the more political side of Death With Dignity, the law that allows physician aid in dying. While voters passed the law with a large margin in 2008, many doctors, or entire organizations, will not prescribe the medication due to personal, ethical or religious beliefs. The story also explains the logistics of using the medication and some of the difficulties people have finding a doctor who will prescribe them the drug.

Explain types of documents, data or Internet resources used. Were FOI or public records act requests required? How did this affect the work?

Most of the document-based research for this story came through medical journals, the actual legislation and news archives about the Death With Dignity law in both Oregon and Washington. I also mined the Washington State Department of Health reports to find statistics about people who had filled the prescription and how many patients had used it.

Explain types of human sources used.

The main sources used for this story were Robert Good and his life partner Eve Syapin, who opened their lives to me during Good's last months with terminal throat cancer. At the beginning of reporting this story, Good didn't want his name or photo in the paper, but after I carefully built trust with him he and Syapin completely opened up their experience and emotions to me for the story. Good waived his HIPPA rights with his Hospice nurse, allowing me to be in touch with the nurse for critical updates and a more clinical insight into Good's cancer. I developed relationships with leaders in the organizations both for and against Death With Dignity who helped me find others close to the issue to be interviewed, such as a doctor who has written numerous fatal prescriptions for terminally ill patients who had been denied from others.

Results (if any).

After this story ran, I received many emails from readers thankful for the personal and in-depth coverage of this issue, which because of its sensitivity often goes reported without a human face.

Follow-up (if any). Have you run a correction or clarification on the report or has anyone come forward to challenge its accuracy? If so, please explain.

No one challenged the accuracy and there was no need for a correction or clarification.

Advice to other journalists planning a similar story or project.

Take the time. When I first began this story, Robert Good didn't want his name in the paper. It took days of listening to build enough trust to get the access I eventually achieved. When I heard he wasn't doing well, I immediately went to my editor and pushed to spend the whole day with him. It was his last outing and the last time he saw his brother. Just listen. Some of the best material came from the exchange between Good and his partner. This was because I tried to make myself invisible, just observing rather than pushing for forced quotes. When Good died, I was at the home within an hour. While I asked a few questions of his partner, I mostly let her fill the silence with her own spontaneous thoughts, which made for a more sincere interview.