John Radcliffe is in the middle of what will probably be his last fight. He’s the self-described “poster boy” in the ongoing battle to persuade state lawmakers to make it legal for patients with less than six months to live to obtain prescription medicine to end their lives.
The retired lobbyist has stage 4 cancer, which was detected in his colon in 2014 and now has spread to his lungs and liver. A CT scan last week showed his cancerous lesions have stopped growing, but he doesn’t know how long he has.
“I could die at any minute,” Radcliffe says. “I look good. I feel good, but the fact of the matter is my body is not with me on that. I am very tired. I spend a lot of time in bed.”
Since his diagnosis, he has been to the emergency room 15 times and on Tuesday, he begins his 59th round of chemotherapy.
I am talking with him at the 1010 Wilder condominium he shares with his wife of 57 years, Diane Radcliffe. She is a retired Radford High School teacher with a love of art and a flair for interior design. Their walls are lined with original works by contemporary local artists such as Allyn Bromley and Dexter Doi. A handcrafted chandelier of aqua glass lights a koa dining table. Art nouveau lamps sit atop a Chinese chest at the entryway.
“It’s an eclectic mix,” she says.
When I ask to see the view from the apartment’s long, wide balcony, instead of focusing on the sweeping panorama of Honolulu, Radcliffe, as alert as he ever was to political details, scans the streets far below to point out an enormous celadon green house. Such structures have come to be known as “monster houses,” and have occupied a lot of City Council time lately.
“Two small homes sat there before for years,” he says. “Then in six months they threw up a really big house.”
Not that he’s knocking the place.
“Monster house? No. I think this is just family people taking one of the few opportunities available to them to expand the house, rent out rooms.”
As a former labor leader and lobbyist, Radcliffe’s life work has been to keep his focus on the latest issues, such as super-sized houses or other public debates that could affect his clients.
“I am known mostly for lobbying for tobacco and liquor companies, gambling interests and prescription drug companies,” he says. “The issue I am urging passage for now is on the side of angels. I am the guy it will help, and other people like me.”
Radcliffe emerged as a key supporter of medical aid in dying during the 2017 session, when it passed the Senate but was derailed in the House without a vote.
If it becomes legal, Radcliffe hesitates to say if he would use it to end his own life. But he says a merciful society should offer the option of a peaceful exit for terminally ill people who want to control their own destinies.
“Personally, I have an aversion to being controlled by others which is so strong that I will never give up wanting to have control over my own life,” he says.
Critics have successfully blocked medically assisted death legislation for more than 20 years. Religious opponents say it is against God’s will. Other naysayers worry that families might use the option to kill off relatives when they want to inherit the sick person’s money.
But this year’s bill has additional safeguards to protect dying people from abuse — more protections than legislation offers in some other states.
Under the proposal, Radcliffe says a patient can receive a prescription for a lethal dose of medicine “only under the most extraordinary circumstances. They have to climb a number of ladders and jump through a number of hoops. How many protections do you need? There are enough safeguards.”
Some political observers are astounded that even though this is an election year when politicians are prone to avoid controversy, the bill is advancing toward passage. And if it clears the Legislature, Gov. David Ige has said he will sign it into law.
“There has been so much intensity surrounding this for so long people are saying ‘enough already. Let’s get on with it,’” Radcliffe says. “The population is getting older. Some aging people are thinking, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I might need this.’ People used to say to their lawmakers when they saw them in the supermarket, ‘Whatever you do, don’t pass that bill.’ Now their attitude has changed. They are telling them go ahead already. Pass it.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal, says Radcliffe. It’s possible the Senate could stick in unpalatable amendments that House members would reject.
He doesn’t want to go into detail about such a possibility.
“Let’s just say I am for the bill the way it stands now. If it needs to be amended, amendments can be added in other years, not now.”
Radcliffe says speaking out for the bill has energized him.
“This has been a real opportunity for me to give back to the community,” he says. “In life, you are supposed to help people as much as you can for as long as you can and as well as you can. I am extremely grateful. I could cry with gratitude for being able to do this.”
Aubrey Hawk, the spokeswoman for Compassion & Choices Hawaii, a nonprofit that advocates for the terminally ill, says Radcliffe’s help has been invaluable.
“When John decided to make the issue his last fight, he put a face to the cause,” Hawk says. “Before it was an abstract idea. Now when people see John, they think more carefully about a person’s right not to suffer. They realize it is cruel to deny terminally ill people the option to end their pain, to make their own end of life decisions.”
Radcliffe says being the face of the issue has evoked sympathy but it has also made him a punching bag for some of the bill’s most adamant opponents. He says he’s heard statements such as, “’If Radcliffe wants to die, he should jump off a bridge. Let him die.’”
But he says that’s okay with that. In his 17 years walking the halls of the Capitol as a lobbyist he has had plenty of opportunities to practice the art of persuasion.
“It gives me the chance to confront them face to face and tell them more about why all of us need this option. They usually listen.”
“When John decided to make the issue his last fight, he put a face to the cause. Before it was an abstract idea. Now when people see John, they think more carefully about a person’s right not to suffer.” — Aubrey Hawk
If Radcliffe seems strangely upbeat in the face of his fatal illness, there is an even more profound reason than the gratification of his community service. He has discovered he has a 61-year-old son he never knew existed, a child Radcliffe fathered when he was 13.
He says he received the news in late 2014 right after he had been diagnosed with cancer and was suffering from very heavy doses of chemotherapy.
“My hair was all falling out and I was going bald, my weight was down to 135 and it sure looked like I was dying.”
A “to whom it may concern” letter arrived from a man who said he was Radcliffe’s son and that he is married with two sons and grandchildren.
“So just like that I became the father of a son I never knew existed, a father-in-law, a grandfather of two, and a great-grandfather to four more. As we say in the Midwest, ‘They are all good looking and above average.’ This is a gift like no other. And Diane and our daughter Romy love them, too.”
“I am as happy as a person with a terminal and very ugly disease can be. I have gained peace, tranquility, certainty. but mostly gratitude for the wonderful life I have had and am having.”
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