Latin America

Why Colombia’s first euthanasia was stopped with 15 minutes to go

Doubting doctors have now approved procedure for cancer patient they canceled last week

Ovidio González Correa photographed at his home.
Ovidio González Correa photographed at his home.

A man whose face was deformed by cancer has become the symbol for the death-with-dignity movement in Colombia.

For the past week, Ovidio González Correa, 79, has been hanging between life and death as medical professionals debated whether or not he qualified for euthanasia.

The staff at the hospital, which first agreed to his petition, stopped the procedure 15 minutes before doctors were to inject him with the drugs that would end his life. But on Thursday, the medical committee went back on its ruling and decided that González Correa would be the first person in Colombia to qualify for euthanasia.

The tumor had broken through the left side of his cheekbone and he was in constant pain

Despite his own predicament, he still retains his dark sense of humor. “I am probably the only person in the world whom death doesn’t want,” said the retired shoemaker who describes himself as an atheist.

In 2012, González Correa was diagnosed with a tumor in his mouth and lost parts of his left jaw and face. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments but the cancer left him disfigured.

Emotionally beaten but refusing to give up, González Correa continued his simple life of rearing cows and tending to his horses in Pereira, a city that makes up part of the country’s coffee-growing axis.

With the support of his wife and four sons, he went into remission but the cancer returned earlier this year.

It was three months ago when he decided to throw in the towel and told his oncologists that he didn’t want any more chemo sessions. The tumor had broken through the left side of his cheekbone and the intense pain was constant.

It hurt every time he tried to speak, and he could only support a liquid diet, causing his weight to drop from 81 kilos to 48 kilos.

“Just not being able to eat is a terrible thing in itself,” said his eldest son, the well-known Colombian cartoonist Julio César González, who is better known by his pen name Matador.

One day, his father told him. “I want to receive euthanasia. I know where I am heading and I don’t want to be bed-ridden” – a plight he has seen other members of his family who have been affected by cancer suffer.

The first option was to visit an expert who had helped dozens of people die with dignity, but that doctor urged him to take the legal route.

Euthanasia was officially legalized in Colombia on April 20 of this year based on a series of Health Ministry rules introduced in 1997.

Euthanasia was officially legalized in Colombia on April 20 after the Health Ministry introduced rules in 1997

On June 4, the family formally submitted a petition with the Western Clinic of Oncology in Pereira to allow him to die with dignity. His doctors confirmed that he met the requirements: it was his own decision; he was in perfect mental health; and his cancer was terminal.

Everything was ready but no one knew exactly why he had chosen 2pm on June 26 as the time and day he wanted to die.

Final farewells were prepared and people began stopping by his home to say goodbye, right up until the day he was due to be given his lethal injections.

His son Matador recalled that on that Friday his father was listening to music with an old friend, Gustavo Colorado, to whom he gave a tango record as a farewell gift. On it, González Correa wrote: “Reason for giving you this: my upcoming trip.”

“The hardest part was taking him to the clinic,” said the cartoonist.

It was the same day that Colombia was playing Argentina in the semifinals of the Copa América soccer tournament and the crowds out on the streets were filled with an optimism that was in direct contrast to the mood of González Correa and his family.

“He was about as moved as an Egyptian pyramid,” Matador said.

About 30 people were at the hospital waiting to help prepare González Correa for his procedure. Doctors would first sedate him so he wouldn’t suffer before the life-ending drugs were administered.

But just 15 minutes before the procedure was supposed to begin, Diego, one of his other sons, received a phone call: a medical committee made up of an oncologist, psychologist, lawyer and radiologist had doubts. The panel wanted a second opinion after one member had raised questions about whether González Correa really did meet all the legal requirements for euthanasia.

The family was emotionally destroyed, but there was still enough humor to help break the tension.

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“Why don’t you just walk out of here covered in a white sheet? Everyone already thinks you’re dead,” joked one family member.

This past week has been intense for González Correa’s family. The media grabbed hold of the story and public opinion began focusing on what final decision authorities would take.

On Thursday, the family received at last the sad but relieving news. The same committee that had stopped his euthanasia got the backing from the Colombian Association of Oncology Radiologists and the Health Ministry to carry out the procedure.

Next week, González Correa will end his suffering.

When he heard of the final decision, González Correa, according to his son, simply uttered a few words directed to the doctor on the panel who had stopped the process: “I want to die because I want to know what it is like.”