KEVIN ROSTER

Imagine being on the receiving end of this news from your doctor:

“Think of your life in weeks…I’d be surprised if it was less than two months…but I’d also be surprised if it was more than four.”

This is your life expectancy they’re talking about here. How much longer you may have on this earth. The end of your life.

How does one possibly process this?

It is unfathomable but still, the clock ticks. The sands of the hourglass are emptying. Irreversibly and with no replenishment. Time is running out. And there is nothing you can do. Except wait.

Depending on whom you are — what your mental makeup is — you decide how you want to play it.

Kevin Roster did exactly that. He decided that if he’s to meet his maker and so soon, he’ll be doing what he chooses to do.

He’ll be playing poker.

“I WANT TO ROB CANCER OF ITS PRIZE.”

Kevin Roster moved to Rancho Cordova, California from Collingswood, New Jersey on May 29 to end his life the way he wanted to. On his own terms. A native Garden Stater, Roster had a tough decision to grapple with, the toughest in fact. New Jersey was the eighth state to legalize ‘death with dignity,’ also known as medical aid-in-dying. Problem for Roster was that the bill passed but won’t be enacted until August and he can’t wait. Not enough time. In 2017 the former semi-professional poker player was diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer (1% of all adult cancers; 200,000 US cases per year; 6,000 American fatalities per year) which started in his left leg. Sarcoma presents in the bones and connective tissues — nerves, muscles, joints, fat and blood vessels — and it is unclear as to what causes it. He lost his left hindquarter and leg and underwent the removal of a twenty pound tumor. Despite chemotherapy and surgery the cancer spread throughout his body and is located in a mass in the pleura next to the mediastinum, the chamber that houses the lungs and heart. It will either grow in the lungs and puncture them or attack the heart, resulting in instantaneous death.

I WANT TO LIVE MORE THAN ANYTHING, I JUST DON’T HAVE ANY WAY TO DO IT.”

“I could stay home and cry about it, but I decided to come to the World Series of Poker and live my life the way I’ve always lived my life, and you know have a nice run at the end.”

Perspective?

“Taking a beating on the tables is much easier after dealing with these kinds of life issues, you know. A bad day on the tables isn’t that bad comparatively. I try to tell people that, but they don’t always wanna hear it when they’re steaming.”

Roster recently competed in the 2019 WSOP held in Vegas knowing full well that being there was for a reason bigger than himself. “I’m here,” he remarked, “to teach people what Sarcoma is and playing in different tournaments and talking to people — that’s what I do.”

Raising awareness is critical, especially for him. His personal diagnosis missed the mark and ultimately will cost him. “The doctors delayed my diagnosis for three or four months through ignorance and not knowing what Sarcoma was. He saw that the MRI said ‘favored benign’ and just went with it and told me I didn’t need any testing or anything.” Further testing Roster contends would have offered him a better chance to fight and more time. “That’s how I could have been saved. You can be saved by demanding a biopsy if you have some sort of an abnormal lump in your arm or your leg. It’s a two-hundred dollar procedure — we call that with ace-king preflop in these games.”

Even a sense of humor does not mask the exigency for self-advocacy.

“WHAT I WANT IS A PEACEFUL DEATH.”

So did Brittany Maynard. Maynard was diagnosed with a stage 4 malignant brain tumor in April 2014 and tipped the news cycles sideways when she shared her decision to opt for assisted suicide, becoming a public face for the non-profit Compassion and Choices — advocates for end-of-life choice. Forewarned that she was facing “a terrible, terrible way to die,” Maynard, a 29-year-old newlywed moved from California to Oregon where administering lethal medication was legal.

She chose to die on November 1, the day after her husband’s birthday and wrote in her final Facebook post, “Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me…but would have taken so much more.” Over 16 million visitors read her story on People.com and Arthur Caplan of NYU’s Division of Medical Ethics noted that because Maynard was “young, vivacious attractive…and a very different kind of person” from the average patient seeking physician-assisted dying — then averaging age 71 in Oregon — she “changed the optics of the debate” and got people of her generation interested in the issue.

Visiting the Grand Canyon — a bucket list item of hers which she was determined to check off — allowed her “to enjoy my time with the two things I love most: my family and nature,” Maynard wrote in a blog post then. She also shared that during her trip she experienced severe headaches, neck pain and “my worst seizure thus far…The seizure was a harsh reminder that my symptoms continue to worsen as the tumor runs its course…My dream is that every terminally ill American has access to the choice to die on their own terms with dignity.”

Researchers with Kaiser Permanente Southern California published a report last year in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) showing that roughly 33% of the terminally ill Californians who requested medical aid-in-dying either succumbed before completing the process or were too ill to finish it. Roster, Maynard and others have adamantly maintained that aid-in-dying should be an inalienable human right. Roster decided to move 3,000 miles from home so he can die with dignity, “absurd” he lamented and highly impractical.

“It’s also easier said than done. I must go through the time-consuming process of establishing residency, finding new doctors who are willing and able to prescribe the medication (health care facilities can prohibit their affiliated doctors from participating in the law), and finding a pharmacist who is willing to fill the prescription…If I don’t live long enough to use the California law, then it’s even more of a travesty that a dying cancer patient with one leg was forced to do all this for something that should be a right…That’s why I urge lawmakers in my former home state of New York and 11 other states still considering medical aid-in-dying bills to enact them into law. Washington, D.C. and eight states representing more than one-fifth of the nation’s population already authorize or do not prohibit this end-of-life care option.”

“I wanted to die the way I lived, which was independently,” Roster commented. “I haven’t punched a clock since I was 20 years old. I didn’t want to be on cancer’s clock. I wanted to be on my own clock…I always knew I wanted control in the end and that I didn’t want to be dependent. I didn’t want to have to wear diapers or be in a medicated coma, sleeping most of the day.”

Faith-based organizations espouse a different doctrine. “Our hearts break each time we hear about someone who is suffering to the point of pursuing the so-called ‘compassion’ of euthanasia,” said Jim Daly, president of the Christian ministry Focus on the Family. “At the same time, as a Christian, I believe it is wisest to allow the Author of Life to make the decision of when an individual’s earthly life should end.”

Not surprisingly an even more powerful dissenting opinion comes from the Catholic Church. In a policy statement referring to “physician-assisted suicide,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in part, “Jewish and Christian moral traditions have long rejected the idea of assisting in another’s suicide. Catholic teaching views suicide as a grave offense against love of self, one that also breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with family, friends and God.”

Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion and Choices applauds Roster’s courage and may have said it best.

She explained that his story “vividly demonstrates the need to pass medical aid-in-dying laws in every state — and promptly implement them. Because no terminally ill person should have to endure what he is enduring just to avoid unbearable suffering at the end of their life.”

As for Kevin Roster, no matter how he fares in what most certainly will be his final Main Event run, he’s already won. He’s proud of the awareness he’s raised for sarcoma and proclaims with great positive energy, “I’m a winner either way, my mission was to raise awareness and that mission has been accomplished. The support has been amazing for the campaign and for myself this summer. Thank you, that’s really all I can say.”

A wonderful attitude for a man dealt such lousy cards.

[Kevin Roster died in Rancho Cordova, CA on July 26, 2019.]

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