End-of-Life Choice, Death with Dignity, Palliative Care and Counseling

Press Releases

End-of-Life Options Advocate Christy O’Donnell Dies Before Law She Championed Takes Effect

Dying Calif. Mom Bravely Fought for Law to Benefit Other Terminally Ill Adults 

CHP_6726(Los Angeles – Feb. 8, 2016) Christy O’Donnell, whose horrific suffering from cancer prompted her to publicly support legislation to give other terminally ill Californians the option of medical aid in dying, has died. She was 47.

Christy’s older brother, Jay Watts, confirmed she died on her Facebook page.

“On February 6, my little Sister Christy passed away and she asked me to post this as her final message on Facebook, as she wanted everyone to know how Loved, Supported, and Lucky she has been in her Lifetime to have you all in her Life. I and our family want to extend a special thanks to the health care professionals at http://www.bestchoicehospicecare.com/ who were absolutely wonderful in doing what they could to help make Christy’s final days as comfortable as possible given the circumstances.”

“To Bailey, my Beautiful Daughter: … I have done everything I can think of to prepare you for this moment and I pray that it has been enough to lessen your suffering after Mommy is gone. I also pray that all of Mommy’s friends and family will be there for you in the future and they have set up a Trust for you at www.crowdrise.com/odonnellfund to do what I could not be there to do, get you through College in our own home with our poopies ‘Lady’ and ‘Pup Pup’. …I take comfort in knowing that someday Aid in Dying will be lawful not only in California, but throughout the United States.”

Christy bravely fought for the recent enactment of California’s aid-in-dying law, the End of Life Option Act, despite knowing she would likely die before it would take effect: 90 days after the end of the legislative special session concludes later this year.

“Christy worked tirelessly for the passage of the End of Life Option Act,” said Compassion & Choices California Campaign Director Toni Broaddus. “Our hearts are breaking at the loss of this amazing woman who did so much for others even as she was facing her own death. It’s a tragedy Christy could not take advantage of the new law she so bravely fought for during the last months of her life. We have so much gratitude for Christy and her work.”

Between agonizing, debilitating cancer treatments, Christy traveled from her Santa Clarita home to Sacramento to testify in support of the End of Life Option Act, told her story to journalists, met with lawmakers, rallied at their offices urging them to support the bill and videotaped a personal plea for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it.

When Brown signed the bill on Oct. 5, she unselfishly spoke of the other beneficiaries:

“I’m overjoyed for all the terminally ill in California, who can now relax knowing they finally have the choice of aid in dying as one of their end-of-life options’” she said. “Gov. Brown, you have made me a proud Californian today, knowing I live in a state where our governor acts in accordance with what his people need, want, and deserve: in this case, a peaceful and pain-free death with their family.”

Christy O'Donnell

A single mom, devout Christian, lifelong Republican and LAPD officer turned civil rights lawyer, Christy had a unique story that resonated with the media and the public.

She was featured in a People Magazine article: “Why Can’t I Die on My Own Terms?” And she wrote an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Daily News: “Deprived of the choice to die with dignity.” Dozens of media outlets covered her story, including: The Huffington Post, The [London] Daily Mail, The Washington Post, and Yahoo News. To learn more about Christy’s courageous battle to pass the End of Life Option Act, watch this video: bit.ly/ChristyO.

Christy was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2014. Despite enduring a year of chemo treatments, the cancer spread to her brain, liver, spine and a rib. Her doctors said she would likely die painfully within months from the rapidly growing cancer.

Despite this prognosis, she tirelessly advocated for passing the End of Life Option Act and was the lead plaintiff in a suit filed by Compassion & Choices asserting existing California law and the state constitution already authorize medical aid in dying.

“I can’t wait,” she told People Magazine. “My daughter can’t wait. I owe this to myself, and I owe this to my daughter. She’s either going to come home and she’s going to have to discover my body, or she’s going to have to watch me die painfully.”

Dan Diaz, the widower of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Californian with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon to access its death-with-dignity law in 2014, fought back tears as he spoke about his friend Christy.

“The first time I ever spoke with Christy she briefly shared with me the details of the cancer she was battling, but the focus of the conversation quickly shifted to how proud she felt of her daughter, Bailey,” Dan Diaz said. “Christy’s determination to live life as long as possible, and her advocacy for end-of-life options, emanated from her love of Bailey. Christy’s devotion to always do right by her Bailey is how I will remember my dear friend.”

Christy was born on July 24, 1968. She was a partner at the law firm of McCune & Harber in Los Angeles and was also a guest lecturer at University of Southern California. She is survived by her 21-year-old daughter, Bailey Donorovich.

Supporters Celebrate Progress of Aid in Dying Legislation for Terminally Ill Coloradans

Following hearing, the House Judiciary Committees Advanced the Bill to the Full House

(Denver, Colorado – Feb 4, 2016) Despite the Colorado Senate’s inaction on the Colorado End of Life Options Act yesterday, advocates for the legislation are celebrating today as their bill moves to the House Floor.

“The campaign to give terminally ill Coloradans the option of medical aid in dying had a real victory today,” said Compassion & Choices Cultivation Manager Roland Halpern. “We applaud members of the House Judiciary Committee who listened to their constituents and agreed that people facing unbearable suffering at the end of life should have more options and more control over how they spend their final days and weeks. Where Senators tried to shut down debate yesterday, the House chose to trust Coloradans to have a serious conversation about the end of life.”

On Wednesday, SB16-025, the End of Life Options Act fell victim to partisan politics in the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee; on Thursday, members of the House Judiciary committee voted six to five in favor of the bill, allowing the legislation to move to the House floor.

The Colorado End of Life Options Act is closely modeled after the Death With Dignity Act in Oregon, which has worked well for 17 years, without a single documented case of abuse or coercion. California recently became the 5th state to authorize the option of medical aid in dying and the 2nd state after Vermont in 2013 to do it via the legislature. The other three states that authorize this end-of-life option are Oregon (via referendum in 1994), Washington (via referendum in 2008) and Montana (via state Supreme Court decision in 2009). More than half the states have considered similar legislation in the past year.

Coloradans from across the state came to the Capitol on Thursday to testify in support of The Colorado End of Life Options Act, which would allow mentally capable, terminally ill adults the option to request a doctor’s prescription for medication that they could take, if their suffering becomes unbearable, to painlessly and peacefully die in their sleep.

Patti James, a 79 year-old nurse from Littleton who also has terminal cancer, testified at the House hearing and later expressed her gratitude: “I am a nurse who has seen too many difficult, painful deaths. I am also a woman with stage 3 lung cancer, which means a cruel and terrifying dying process is in my future. I want to thank the committee for truly hearing what we had to say and moving this legislation to the next step. I may not ultimately be able to access this compassionate option, but I hope other dying Coloradans can one day.”

Many Coloradans went to difficult lengths to get to the Capitol and have their voices heard. Joellyn Duesberry is a 71 year-old from Greenwood Village. She explained, “I have forfeited my privacy in order to be robustly vulnerable before all of you gathered here [because I] want my dying to be of some service to humanity.”

Dr. Lauri Costello, a family doctor from Durango, made it clear to members on the committee why she is confident supporting the Colorado End of Life Options Act: “The term ‘physician assisted suicide’ is, frankly, deeply offensive to me as a physician and to many of my physician colleagues.  This term does not refer to any legal medical procedure, and insinuates that physicians help their patients commit suicide.  Suicide and euthanasia are both illegal in all 50 States and will remain so.  Neither is remotely related to medical aid in dying, which this bill addresses.”

Dan Diaz, who was in Colorado last week, had his testimony read aloud to the House committee and provided video testimony given by his late wife, Brittany Maynard. Maynard had terminal brain cancer and moved from California to Oregon in 2014 to access that state’s Death with Dignity Act. Diaz testified, “As a Catholic, I believe it is not for me to judge someone else’s decision regarding their own end of life.  I respect those who might make a different decision if they were in Brittany’s shoes, so I don’t understand why they do not extend the same respect to those of us, and the 68% of Coloradans, that agree with Brittany and support End-of-Life Options for terminally ill individuals.”

Presidential Campaign Forum Raises End-of-Life Options Issue

End-of-Life Options Organization to Host Teleconference Before Nevada Primary

(Portland, OR – Feb. 4, 2016) In response to a unique question about end-of-life care options raised during a CNN presidential town hall last night by terminally ill supporter Jim Kinhan, Compassion & Choices announced today it will host a teleconference on the issue before the Nevada primary. The teleconference will take place on Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. EST/5pm PST, at a location still to be determined.

Below is a partial transcript of the presidential town hall exchange between Hillary Clinton and Jim Kinhan, an 81-year-old supporter of Compassion & Choices dying from colon cancer, who wrote an op-ed about it published in the Concord Monitor.

KINHAN: “… I wonder what leadership you could offer within an executive role that might help advance the respectful conversation that is needed around this personal choice that people may make, as we age and deal with health issues or be the caregivers of those people, to help enhance their end of life with dignity.”

HILLARY CLINTON: “… this is the first time I’ve been asked that question … And I thank you for it, because we need to have a conversation in our country … So it is a crucial issue that people deserve to understand from their own ethical, religious, faith-based perspective … I want, as president, to try to catalyze that debate because I believe you’re right, this is going to become an issue more and more.”

“Options for end-of-life care are a big deal for millions of older Americans like Jim Kinhan and their baby boomer caregivers,” said Compassion & Choices Action Network President Barbara Coombs Lee, who was an ER and ICU nurse and physician assistant for 25 years. “Virtually every national and state poll shows voters from all political persuasions and demographic groups want autonomy to choose from the full range of end-of-life care options, including hospice, palliative care and medical aid in dying.”

“Most people want to die at home and avoid futile, painful, unwanted medical treatments that only extend their dying process and destroy their quality of life,” added Coombs Lee. “We are hosting this teleconference so journalists, politicians and voters unfamiliar with end-of-life care options can learn about and discuss this issue.”

Oregon AG Urged Not to Waive Merger Review for Catholic Hospitals in 6 States

Groups Note Catholic Ethical & Religious Directives Restrict Reproductive, End-logoof-Life Care

(Portland, OR – Jan. 14, 2016) Thirteen public interest organizations have written Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum urging her to reject a request for a waiver from the standard process for reviewing merger transactions by the nation’s 6th largest nonprofit hospital system, Providence Health & Services, and St. Joseph Health.

“This proposed transaction involves eight hospitals across Oregon, and a total of almost 50 hospitals across six states [Alaska, California, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Washington],” the groups said in the letter sent to AG’s office on Jan. 8. “Even absent the transfer of assets, significant changes in health care delivery are likely to occur…it behooves the Attorney General to undertake the full review process to ensure that this transaction preserves existing health care services and benefits the public interest.”

St. Joseph and Providence are both Catholic health systems. Catholic hospitals must typically follow the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The ERDs many forbid reproductive health services, including all birth control methods, sterilization, miscarriage management, abortion, the least invasive treatments for ectopic pregnancies, and some infertility treatments. The ERDs provide no exceptions for risks to a patient’s health or even life.

In addition, the ERDs limit medical end-of-life decision making of patients by restricting options for advanced directives, surrogate decision-making, and withdrawal of life-sustaining procedures in Catholic healthcare settings. Providence and St. Joseph operate hospitals in four states – California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington – that authorize medical aid in dying as an end-of-life care option for terminally ill adults.

“Every patient who enters a hospital, clinic, doctor’s office, or any other medical setting expects that she or he will receive treatment information and services that meet the standard of care,” the letter notes. “Yet, the restrictions the ERDs place on Catholic hospitals are severe limitations that violate basic evidence-based standards of care – accepted medical practice and as adopted by the major professional medical associations.”

When Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton, WA affiliated in 2013 with the Franciscan [Catholic] Health System, doctors at Harrison were forbidden from performing “elective” abortions or writing prescriptions for aid-in-dying medication to terminally ill adults who request it.

Or. Rev. Stat. 65.807(1) requires that the Attorney General conduct a public hearing on the proposed transaction,” the letter concludes. “The purpose of the public meeting is to receive input and comments from the immediate community to be directly affected. This critical step in the review process should not be waived.”

The California Attorney General’s office has rejected a similar waiver request.

The following groups signed the letter:

National Health Law Program

ACLU of Oregon

Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon

Catholics for Choice

Compassion & Choices

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund

Legal Voice

MergerWatch

NARAL Pro Choice Oregon

Northwest Health Law Advocates

Physicians for Reproductive Health

Pride Foundation

Western States Center

You can read the full letter by clicking here.

Compassion & Choices Launches Bilingual Access Campaign for California Aid-in-Dying Law

Effort to Focus on Terminally Ill Adults, Families, Healthcare Professionals

CA Access Campaign sq
Elizabeth Wallner speaks at the CA Access Campaign launch

(Sacramento, CA – Dec. 10, 2015) Compassion & Choices today launched a bilingual campaign to educate terminally ill Californians, families and medical providers about the benefits and requirements of the state’s new aid-in-dying law.

Once it takes effect in 2016, the End of Life Option Act will give terminally ill Californians the option to make the end-of-life healthcare decisions that are right for them in the final stages of a terminal illness. The Act allows terminally ill, mentally capable adults who have a prognosis of six months or less to live, the option to request from their doctor a prescription for medication that they can self-administer, if they so choose, to die peacefully and painlessly in their sleep to relieve suffering and shorten a difficult dying process.

“It is important for every Californian to clearly understand the benefits and requirements of the law so every state resident knows all their end-of-life care options, especially if they are suffering,” said Kat West, National Director of Policy & Programs for Compassion & Choices. “Our California Access Campaign will educate and empower both doctors and terminally ill adults about all the end-of-life care options to relieve intolerable suffering, including hospice, palliative care and medical aid in dying.”

The California Access Campaign launch was announced during a news conference at the California Primary Care Association (CPCA) in Sacramento. The CPCA is among a group of community health centers, hospitals, medical and hospice facilities and nonprofit organizations that will partner with Compassion & Choices to ensure that all Californians know medical aid in dying is a legitimate and trusted end-of-life care option.

“The California Primary Care Association is proud to continue our partnership with Compassion & Choices by educating patients and our healthcare partners about the end-of-life options now available to them,” said Carmela Castellano-Garcia, President and CEO of California Primary Care Association. “Everyone deserves compassion and the option to make informed decisions at the end of their lives.”

Terminally ill Californians and their families, physicians and pharmacists can call a free hotline, 800-893-4548, to access information on the End of Life Option Act, including bilingual, information for the public. Through this hotline, physicians will be able to access Compassion & Choices’ free Doc 2 Doc consultation program to speak to doctors with years of experience in end-of-life care, including medical aid in dying. Pharmacists will also be able to access the Pharmacist2Pharmacist consultation program. For more information, visit www.endoflifeoption.org

“It is critical for doctors to understand how to respond to a terminally ill person’s request for medical aid in dying,” said Dr. David Grube, a national medical director for Compassion & Choices, who has written aid-in-dying prescriptions authorized by Oregon’s death-with-dignity law. “This response includes assessing the patient’s mental capability to make an informed request, reviewing the patient’s previous treatment, and offering alternatives to medical aid in dying, such as hospice and palliative care.”

The California Access Campaign launch follows the recent publication by the Journal of Palliative Medicine of Clinical Criteria for Physician Aid in Dying [AID]. Based on the 23+ years of clinical experience under death-with-dignity laws in Oregon (since 1998) and Washington (since 2009), [Montana (since 2009), Vermont (since 2013) and California (in 2015), the AID study concluded:

“Physician aid in dying is now recognized by a majority of Americans, Californians and physicians as an end-of-life option that should be available to terminally ill patients,” said Dr. Ben Rich, Emeritus Professor of Internal Medicine and Bioethicist from the University of California at Davis School of Medicine. “Making these criteria available will provide them with necessary background information and practice parameters for them to take into consideration in the care of patients confronting a terminal condition.”

“Death doesn’t scare me,” said End of Life Option Act supporter Elizabeth Wallner, a single mom from Sacramento who is suffering from stage IV colon cancer that has spread to her liver and lungs. “What scares me more is to have my only son and my family watch me die slowly and painfully. I don’t want this agonizingly traumatic image to be their last memory of me.”