Change-maker Susan Nimoy shares how the end-of-life experience of her late husband, Leonard Nimoy — best-known for his legendary role as Spock in the Star Trek franchise — inspired her to help get people talking about how they’d like to spend their final days.
Q. What was it like sharing life with a cultural icon? Was the Mr. Spock character a complete departure from the real Mr. Nimoy?
A. Leonard was a very humble man. His tastes were simple; he didn’t need a lot of attention. So the fact that he was a cultural icon didn’t play itself out in our private life. But of course when we did go out in public, he would always be outed.
He loved to have fun and was much more relaxed than the Spock everyone identifies with. But on the other hand he was also very rational, and he processed information well. He was a thoughtful person, and he was extremely smart. So there was a lot about Spock that Leonard drew on from his own being and infused into the character. But much of Leonard never found its way to Spock. I don’t know how often over the years we ever saw Spock laugh, but Leonard laughed all the time.
Q. You also have your own long background in film, as an actor and director, and founded a steering committee in 1979 to protest gender discrimination in Hollywood. How do you feel about the progress in that industry since then?
A.There has been minimal progress, and I feel badly about it. There are more women directors working today, but percentage-wise in comparison to the men working, it’s not even 10 percent. And that’s not because there aren’t good women directors out there. At least now there’s a lot more conversation about how women are marginalized, but that conversation has yet to turn into huge change.
Q. Both you and Leonard have also been generous, impactful proponents of the arts. Why do you think championing that kind of work is important?
A. I believe that art is transformative, that at its core it talks about the human condition, and it teaches us about ourselves. Our home is filled with it, and we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to give back by creating residencies for artists all across the country and institutions that have had residency programs. We’ve been able to build theaters where there were not theaters, and hopefully these gifts will encourage generations one imagination at a time to pick things to do with their lives they may never have thought of otherwise.
Q. Now you’re also a strong supporter of end-of-life issues. What brought you to this movement?
A. Leonard had breathing difficulties always: asthma, then he developed emphysema, which then was diagnosed as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and the writing was on the wall. He would never be better; he would only get worse. He had a wonderful doctor at UCLA who was doing everything in his power to give Leonard quality of life, but there was never any discussion about his last days. The conversation that I believe needed to take place was you’ve got probably three months to live; how do you want to live them? I didn’t know to have that conversation, and I feel it’s essential. It will profoundly affect the choices people make, the doctors they seek out, the oncologists and cardiologists they work with so that they can have a conversation with these physicians that is honest and forthcoming.
Q. Recently you established the Leonard Nimoy Physicians’ Education Fund. What are your hopes for that project?
A. I think physicians, nurses and patients need to learn how to look at the final chapter of life. People want to live, surely, but they would like to be able to weigh in on the quality of their last days. This program will include a hotline to speak to another human being, get information, ask questions and receive advice on how to talk to your family and doctors. Leonard and I talked about dying at great length. He said, “Don’t let me die in the hospital.” I said, “You won’t. You will die at home, on hospice, surrounded by your family.” And that’s exactly what we did — but I had to fight for it. He died with a smile on his face. His nurse said in all of her practice, she has never seen that. He was so ready. He was 83. He had lived a wonderful life and done everything he wanted to do; he was happy. But every story is different, and everybody has to find their way. Without the information, though, you don’t know what’s available to you. Information is power.