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Local woman went to Oregon to end own life

MIDDLEBURY — Nancy Valko was tired of living in the prison that Lou Gehrig’s Disease had made of her once vibrant body.
So on a sunny April 19, 2009, the former Middlebury resident took one last wheelchair ride through her favorite park, had a piece of berry pie, bade farewell to her beloved friends and family, and went out into her backyard to draw her last breath.
Valko died a few hours after ingesting a lethal medication that can be prescribed under an Oregon state law that gives terminally ill patients the right to end their own lives after following some specific guidelines. Valko had moved from the Green Mountain State to Oregon in late 2008, in part to take advantage of the law.
A version of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law has been introduced this year in the Vermont House Health and Welfare Committee (see related story, Page 1A).
Nancy Valko — mother, avid outdoors person and former employee of Mary Hogan Elementary School and the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op — wanted to die on her own terms, and Oregon was the one state that could legally afford her the opportunity to do that. Valko’s family supported her decision to take her own life before her affliction had rendered her a complete shadow of her former self.
“Her spirit was imprisoned in a body that didn’t work,” recalled Valko’s sister and former caregiver, Marnie Wood of Middlebury.
Wood was present at her sister’s side when she died.
“It was such a beautiful ending to the life of a beautiful person, both inside and out,” she said.
Wood said her sister’s decision to take her own life was not made lightly. It was preceded by several years of suffering and rapid loss of function in a previously active body.
Valko had always been physically fit and attentive to the things she ate. She became a massage therapist and knew how the human body was supposed to function. So it shook Valko to her core when she began to feel weak and lose function in parts of her body in 2005.
Valko was initially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2006. By this time, her speech was becoming slurred and her mobility was becoming impaired. She increasingly had to rely on family for moral and physical support. Marnie Wood took her sister into her own home in Middlebury in December of 2007. It was early in 2008 that neurologists determined that she did not have MS, but in fact had Lou Gehrig’s Disease (formally known as ALS), a terminal condition.
Valko received the news with a mixture of courage and sense of humor that would serve her through her darkest hours, her sister recalled.
“She asked the doctor, ‘Can I pick from a different menu,’” when informed of her revised diagnosis, Wood said.
Valko’s condition deteriorated rapidly in 2008. She faced a further downward health spiral that would eventually include the inability to swallow, little control over her muscles, weight loss, difficulty breathing and paralysis. It was not the way Valko, still possessing a keen mind, wanted to die.
“She knew she did not want to be trapped on and on,” Wood said.
So in November of 2008, Valko chose to move from Middlebury to Oregon — where she had previously spent some time — to be closer to her children and to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity law. The law, enacted in 1998, allows adult residents to self-administer a lethal dose of medication if they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness likely to result in death within six months or less. The patient must be given the opportunity to opt-out and must affirm his or her wish, in front of witnesses, before being prescribed the life-ending drug.
It was a heart rending decision for Valko’s family, but they stood behind her — even her 90-year-old mom.
“Nancy’s certainty of her forthcoming death and her desire to make a choice to end her life was something we supported,” Wood said.
Wood recalled that Valko wanted to qualify for the Oregon law while she was still able to swallow. She was placed in hospice care, met all the criteria, and settled into a home where she would spend her final days surrounded by friends and family. Among them was Wood.
She chose April 19, 2009, as her final day. After wheeling through the park and eating pie, she listened to some soothing harp music.
“It was a beautiful day,” Wood recalled.
So beautiful that Nancy Valko did not want to die indoors. Her family and friends brought a futon outside on which she could recline. She said her goodbyes, took the drug, and lost consciousness.
Valko’s heart proved more resilient than her frail body. When she had not expired two hours after taking the drug, her son picked her up, told her she could “go,” and gently carried her indoors.
“By the time he got her inside, she was gone,” Wood recalled.
Nancy Valko was 58 when she died. She is one of 525 people to have availed themselves of the Death with Dignity law.
Wood is among those supporting Vermont’s adoption of Death with Dignity legislation. It is unclear whether the bill (H.274) will be taken up this biennium as Vermont lawmakers are currently tackling health care reform and a sizable budget shortfall, among other things.
“It’s all about equal rights, in my mind,” Wood said of the legislation. As she speaks on behalf of the Vermont law, Wood will evoke memories of her sister and the manner in which she died.
“She was such a bright light through a dark time in her life,” Wood said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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