Norma Bauerschmidt, better known as “Miss Norma,” made worldwide headlines when she chose to pass on cancer treatment last year for a road trip with her son and his wife in their RV: eating cake, drinking beer and enjoying life to the end. Normal died on September 30, 2016, at age 91. We spoke to her daughter-in-law, Ramie Liddle, about the inspiring escapade.
Q. What was your first reaction when Norma opted to forgo treatment, and how did she make that decision?
A. To give some context, Norma had just been through the relatively sudden deaths of the two most important people remaining in her life. Her brother Ralph (91) died of stomach cancer, and one month to the day later her husband, Leo (88), died from complications related to a compression fracture in his back.
Tim and I honestly can’t remember who came up with the idea, but we invited Norma to live with us, just like many other adult children do with their elderly parents. The difference was our house had wheels — we lived on the road full time. We had no idea what it would be like but thought we would give her the option to come along if she wanted to.
Two days after Leo’s death Norma told the doctor how she was going to live the rest of her time. She watched Ralph and Leo’s last days and had no interest in heroics, treatment or additional medications. Norma was clear that the proposed medical procedures would not result in an increased quality of life for her. She imagined tremendous despair as she tried to heal from cancer treatments that would likely take her life sooner than if she ignored the diagnosis. Her decision was easily made, and we supported it from the very beginning. Our first reaction: “Let’s get packing!” We couldn’t wait to bring her along.
Q. Was her doctor supportive?
A. The doctor who presented us with the diagnosis went straight into the treatment procedures. There was nothing surprising about what he outlined: basically surgery, chemo and radiation, then a stay in a rehabilitation facility before living the rest of her days in a nursing home with round-the-clock care. It wasn’t until Norma said, “I’m 90 years old; I’m hitting the road,” did this young doctor pause and reflect on what his elderly patient was saying. Tim explained our lifestyle and intention to take his mom on the road with us. The doctor’s shift was palpable. “Really? Right on!”
We asked if he thought us irresponsible for this approach. His reply was telling. “As doctors,” he said, “we see what cancer treatment looks like every day — ICU, nursing homes, awful side effects. Honestly, there is no guarantee she will survive the initial surgery to remove the mass. You are doing exactly what I would want to do in this situation. Have a fantastic trip!”
We wished that he had presented an option of no treatment and encouraged us to consider that as an equally viable choice from the beginning, but he didn’t. Norma, with our support, needed to be strong and imaginative enough to come up with an alternative that was not taught in medical school.
Q. Caring for a terminally ill person of advanced age can be fairly intense, even in one’s own home, near their doctor. How did you manage on the road?
A. I guess naivete helped us in the early days. We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
We wanted to foster Norma’s independence as much as possible. We gave her a voice in all our decisions and her own space in the motorhome. The wheelchair we bought her also served as a walker so she could go for walks by herself, and we encouraged her to do what she wanted, not what she thought was the right thing to do.
Not being near her doctors was actually an asset. She could have spent her last year sitting in waiting rooms three times a week; instead she was out in national parks looking for moose or avoiding alligators. She flew in a hot-air balloon and was a VIP in a parade, not stuck in a cramped room with a strange roommate watching Wheel of Fortune at high volume. It wasn’t until the last two months of her life that we were in full-on caregiving mode. Our plan all along, when she required more care than we could provide by ourselves, was to enlist a hospice team. Otherwise she was simply a wonderful travel companion, living her life until she couldn’t anymore.
Q. Reflecting back, what was the best part of the experience for Norma?
A. When Norma met her hospice nurse for the first time, the nurse examined her feet. She couldn’t help but notice the pink flowers painted on Norma’s toenails from her most recent pedicure and was obviously impressed. Then she said, “What’s up with your skin here? What is this line on your legs?” In all her years as a nurse working with elderly patients she had never seen anything like she was seeing on Norma. Norma smiled and proudly said, “Well that’s my suntan! My socks usually go right to here.” She pointed to her sock line.
Norma came alive on this trip. I liken it to a flower that had not been watered in a while, and when the rain fell in the form of love and permission to live fully the flower began to open up, showing its most vibrant colors before the end of its life. She said “YES!” to living to the very end.
Q. How about for you?
A. All of it! Norma’s spirit heartened us from early on. She showed us that you can be creative and somewhat in control of your last moments. She gave herself permission to let go and enjoy life to her very last waking moment.
Most remarkable is the millions of others she willingly carried along for the ride. Her story has gained fans from the most far-reaching and unlikely points on the globe. That was never our intent, yet we are grateful that our simple story has provided a window into the human spirit that is so very beautiful.