In an exclusive interview with Katie Couric, 46-year-old Christy O'Donnell, who has terminal cancer, talks about her desire to die peacefully and legally in her home state of California. (Video by Katie Couric/Yahoo News, Story by Korin Miller/Yahoo Health)
A terminally ill single mom who has been given months to live is fighting the state of California for the right to die. Now, a judge has ordered an expedited review of her suit, which will be heard later this month.
Los Angeles attorney Christy O’Donnell filed a lawsuit in May, asking the state of California to allow her doctor to prescribe life-ending medication without criminal prosecution so that she can end her life before her terminal lung cancer does.
O’Donnell was diagnosed last summer with stage IV cancer in her lung that spread to her brain, spine, rib, and liver. Her chemotherapy treatments have lost their effectiveness, and she’s expected to live only a few more months.
“If my liver fails, my stomach will become huge, painful, and distended,” O’Donnell tells Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric in a new interview. “And with the bone tumors, there’s not really any medication they can give me that’s going to take away the pain.”
Christy O’Donnell and her daughter, Bailey (Photo courtesy of Christy O’Donnell/Compassion & Choices)
O’Donnell says she’s also at risk of dying of her lung tumor, which will essentially cause her to drown in her own fluids. “I grew up in Hawaii surfing,” she says. “I’ve been held down a long time. I know what that feels like, and to think about experiencing that scares me to death.”
O’Donnell says she doesn’t want her death to be traumatic for her or her 21-year-old daughter, Bailey. “My biggest fear about my last moments on earth are that … I’m going to be in so much physical pain that it’s going to make my passing traumatic for me and traumatic for my daughter,” she says. “And that the whole rest of her life, her last moments of looking at me, touching me, and hearing my voice are going to be a horrible, terrible memory that she’s going to have to carry, rather than it being a loving memory of me.”
O’Donnell was recently able to accompany her daughter on her 21st birthday trip to the Bahamas — something she was nearly unable to do because of head pain she experienced just days before the trip, that left her unable to keep food down. But she insisted on going on the trip to be there for her daughter, instead of staying in the hospital: “I’m like, ‘No way. I have to make this ship,’” she told People. “So they literally discharged me two hours before the ship left.“
O’Donnell and her daughter Bailey while on their trip to the Bahamas. (Photo courtesy of Christy O’Donnell)
The trip allowed O’Donnell to spend time with her daughter and celebrate with her. “I think it’s the first time I’ve seen Bailey smile like that in a very long time,” O’Donnell told People. “It was nice to see her smile in such an uninhibited way."
O’Donnell and Bailey at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. (Photo courtesy of Christy O’Donnell)
O’Donnell has now joined forces with two other seriously ill patients and a doctor to pursue their case through the California legal system. O’Donnell has also testified in support of California’s medical aid-in-dying bill, the End of Life Option Act (SB 128), which passed the California Senate earlier this month. The bill has moved on to the California Assembly, with a September deadline for a vote.
The End of Life Option Act was modeled after Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, a law that legalizes physician-assisted dying with certain restrictions. End-of-life choice advocate and terminally ill brain-cancer sufferer Brittany Maynard, who rose to fame in 2014, moved to Oregon from California with her family to take advantage of the law. She ended her life in November with medication prescribed by her doctor.
As of now, only Oregon, Vermont, Montana, and Washington allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminal patients, but laws similar to the End of Life Option Act are also making their way through the legal systems in New Mexico and New York.
O’Donnell says opponents of the End of Life Option Act don’t understand that there are safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the law.
Attorney Barbara Coombs Lee, president of nonprofit death-with-dignity organization Compassion & Choices and co-author of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, tells Yahoo Health that those safeguards include extensive evaluations by two physicians, as well as several waiting periods, before a patient can fill a prescription for life-ending medication.
Even then, Coombs Lee points out, not everyone actually takes the medication. “Every year between 30 to 51 percent of the people who have the prescriptions do not administer them,” she says, adding that many feel that the quality of their lives improves just by having the option.
Despite the growing death-with-dignity fight in various states, Coombs Lee doesn’t expect that it will find itself in front of the Supreme Court anytime soon: “I don’t think it’s reasonable to think the Supreme Court will act before the majority of states.”
But Coombs Lee is hopeful that the End of Life Option Act will pass in California within three years. “It will definitely pass,” she says. “And if this legislature doesn’t pass it, there are two lawsuits working their way up.”
Terminally ill patients in California currently only have a few life-ending options, says Coombs Lee, and they’re less than humane. If a person’s pain becomes intolerable, they have the option to ask their physician to sedate them to unconsciousness and then withhold food and water until they die. “That can take days,” says Coombs Lee, adding that some people have simply stopped eating and drinking without sedation. And, of course, she says, “violent options are available.”
O’Donnell refuses to go that route. “I’m not going to be a lawbreaker at the end of my life and then have the police come into my home and interrogate my family because it’s part of what they’re required to do when they investigate a suicide under the penal code,” she tells Couric. “I would never do that to my family.”
O’Donnell says it’s important that people know that she’s not suicidal: “I don’t want to die … I would do anything to live.”
A preliminary motions hearing for O’Donnell’s suit will be held on July 24, her birthday.