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Terminal Las Vegas Woman Becomes Focus Of Assisted-Suicide Debate

Hanna Olivas at the Nevada Public Radio studios.
Chris Smith

Hanna Olivas at the Nevada Public Radio studios.

In the time she has left, Las Vegan Hanna Olivas still works when she can as a make-up artist, enjoys her grandkids and loves time with her husband, Jerry.

But as of two weeks ago, she’s taken on a new role.

Olivas has multiple myeloma,  a terminal type of blood cancer. And after going through chemotherapy—a process that might extend her life five years—she stopped when doctors said her liver and kidneys were being damaged.

In addition, the chemotherapy didn't reduce the cancer to the point that she could start stem cell treatment.

So about a year after starting treatment, she decided she wanted to seek medical aid in dying, which a lot of people know as doctor-assisted suicide.

In the last few weeks, she's been featured recently featured People Magazine, has been on the "Today Show." and more local and national publications.

And while she might look the picture of health, she told KNPR's State of Nevada that the disease is taking a terrible toll. 

She broke one of her ribs the other day while vomiting. Olivas said she suffers from weakening bones, a curving spine, almost constant nausea, and headaches that make her skull hurt, as well as debilitating fatigue.

"To get up the energy to come even here to speak with you is hard," she said.

Olivas is now on a mission to get a law in Nevada that allows for medical aid in dying. A bill toward that end never got support but ultimately failed in the Legislature earlier this year.

“A lot of work went into it, we had the hearings, but it had a lack of votes,” said State Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, the bill’s chief sponsor. He added that more than 70 percent Nevadans support the idea of “dying with dignity.”

For her part, Olivas believes she has a lot more life to live and will continue her fight against cancer -- but she understands too well what her future holds.

"I know what comes with myeloma. I know the death that it brings. And I will not have my family, or my kids watch me suffer like that," she said. 

She said if she has to she will go out of state when the time comes. 

On the flipside are doctors who take an oath to do no harm. Olivas’ own Nevada doctors did not agree with her ideas on doctor-assisted death.

And a national group, Patient Rights Action Fund, is fighting against state efforts nationwide to legalize medical aid in dying.

Kristen Hanson, with the Patient Rights Action Fund, became a widow after her husband died of brain cancer. One of Hanson's arguments against aid in dying is that doctors sometimes make diagnostic mistakes.

With her late husband, J.J., three doctors said he brain tumor was inoperable and he had just months to live. But another doctor said it could be operated on, and he lived another four years, long enough to get to know a new-born son.


Hanson said she became passionate about the issue when J.J. confessed  that during one of his darkest days, he considered doctor-assisted death.

"So many patients suffer from depression at any point following their diagnosis," she added. "And so patients, in a moment of depression, or a period of depression ... could take those pills and we'll never know how many good years they would have had later on."

Hanson instead would like to see more palliative or end of life care for patients who are suffering. 

Olivas said she understood that medical aid in dying is not for everyone. But she believes it should be one option open to those with a terminal illness.

"I'm asking Nevada legislators and the people of Nevada to look at this bill, look at loved ones that are suffering horrific deaths from cancer and other terminal illnesses," she said. Do they want to watch that person suffer? If that person has the way and the means to leave here peacefully, on their terms, why not let that be?"

Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia allowed doctor-assisted death. 

(Editor's note: This discussion originally aired October 2019)

Hanna Olivas, Las Vegas;  Kristen Hanson, Patients Rights Action Fund

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.