Woodstock man’s obituary reflects on choices about life and death

  • Barbara Butler and Jeff Bendis, of Woodstock, Vt., are photographed in Avignon, France, while on a Rhône River cruise in October 2017. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2020 10:06:23 PM
Modified: 2/26/2020 6:14:52 PM

WOODSTOCK — Often when people write their own obituaries, they don’t know when it might actually be needed. But Jeff Bendis had a pretty good idea; he died by medically-assisted death earlier this month at the age of 76.

“If this paragraph is included in this obituary, then I went out on my own terms as they say in obituaries here in Vermont. I certainly didn’t come here because that avenue was available — ’cuz it wasn’t when I first got here. But Act 39 became the law and, given my medical situation, I thought it wise to take advantage of it,” Bendis wrote in an obituary that appeared earlier this month in the Valley News, and in a similar form on the Cabot Funeral Home website.

Act 39 is Vermont’s “Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act,” which is sometimes known as death with dignity or physician-assisted suicide.

Bendis spent much of his life working as an executive at an industrial company in Cleveland. When the company was bought out in 2000, he and his late wife Kathleen moved to Woodstock and opened a bed and breakfast. Bendis became active in several local service organizations, including the Rotary Club.

In 2004, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

A few years ago, the cancer began to grow. He then chose to undergo the Death with Dignity process and died in hospice care on Feb. 11.

Greg Camp, the director of Cabot Funeral Home, knew Bendis from Rotary Club. Camp said Bendis had taken a relatively novel approach in pre-writing his obituary with the knowledge that he was going through such a momentous end-of-life decision.

“I would say a lot of people provide information for their obit, but very few people in my experience write it the way he did in the first person,” said Camp.

Bendis’s wife, Barbara Butler, thinks his self-written obituary is “the best representation of who he was.”

“I met him in 2006, and we got married in 2006. As long as I’ve known him, (death with dignity is) what he wanted to do,” she said.

She added that their courtship was “short and intense.”

Her favorite story to tell about him is their favorite song as a couple: Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

The song was Jeff’s choice.

“We played it at our wedding and just looked at each other the whole time, which was difficult (to do while dancing),” said Butler.

The pair got a vanity license plate of the song’s initials — FTEISYF — on their shared VW Cabriolet. When they donated the car to public radio, Jeff framed the license plate for their wall.

Although Butler still supports Death with Dignity, the process was more stressful than anticipated.

The right for terminally ill people to end their own lives with medical assistance is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, and was signed into law in Vermont in 2013. (In New Hampshire, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on its own Death with Dignity proposal earlier this month.)

Patients in Vermont can participate in Act 39 if they are capable of making informed medical decisions, can self-administer the death-hastening dose, and are judged by two separate physicians to be suffering from an incurable and irreversible disease that leaves them no more than six months to live.

According to a report by the Vermont Department of Health, between 2017 and 2019, the process was carried out 34 times, of which 24 were cancer-related.

Bendis was receiving treatment at Rutland Regional Medical Center’s Foley Cancer Center and received his final approval for DWD from an oncologist there. But according to Butler, pharmacists there were unable to access any of the drugs Bendis had hoped would be available to help end his life.

Bendis then chose to die using morphine, but “lingered” in hospice care for four days, Butler said.

“The nurses all said that he was peaceful, but the whole time he was struggling for breath and not getting very much oxygen. That did not feel peaceful to me at all. I’m not aware of what was going on,” said Butler.

Jonathan Reynolds, the vice president of clinical services at the Rutland hospital, declined to comment on any specific case. Asked about secobarbital, a fast-acting barbiturate that had in the past been a common death-hastening drug, he said the hospital’s wholesaler hasn’t carried it for more than a year. However, he said there are some compounded formulations available that are less expensive than secobarbital, which saw a price hike a few years ago.

Betsy Walkerman, the president of the Board of Directors of Patient Choices Vermont, a group dedicated to educating people about the process, also said that secobarbital is no longer the gold standard in such cases, and that, after the drug became prohibitively expensive, a number of cheaper options are now available.

In his obituary, Bendis made clear he believed in making active choices for his health care.

“Demand that your medical team listens to you and takes appropriate action. If you’re going to take charge of any aspect of your life make it your health care,” he wrote. Through the Visiting Nurse and Hospice (VNH) service for Vermont, Bendis and Butler had the help of multiple nurses, a chaplain and a social worker. Also with them at the end were two other couples they were close to.

As her husband began the medication that would end his life days later, Barbara played a tape of music. The Roberta Flack song came on.

“That’s the last song he heard, as far as we know,” she said.

Rohan Chakravarty can be reached at rchakravarty@vnews.com.

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