Devin, Ryan and Shannon Hibbard shared their story in May of 2021.
On April 7, 2021, we lost our beloved father and hero. He was the most loving, caring and selfless man.
Our dad’s unwavering life purpose was to serve others, and he did so in many forms. He was inspired as a young man by John F. Kennedy's inaugural address urging Americans to, ‘’Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Dad lived his life asking what he could do for other people, and the world is a better place because of him.
In his 82 years, our dad lived a life of service, from being in the very first Peace Corps cohort in Nigeria and later being a Peace Corps doctor in India, to practicing medicine as a family practice and hospice doctor, to being president of the Boulder Lacrosse Foundation serving thousands of kids, to working at Kisiizi hospital in rural Uganda.
Aside from being generous with his time and talents, Dad was also a great deal of fun. He was a beautiful mix of serious work and high play. He lived a vibrant life, throwing himself into whatever he did, including running several marathons (with push-ups and sit-ups every morning), traveling around the world teaching us kids about different cultures and religions, and mountain biking the single track in Moab into his 70s.
Growing up, we witnessed his dedication to his patients and his practice. He was the last doctor in Boulder, Colorado, to do house visits. He introduced us to what it means to serve your country and community, and encouraged us to seek out and learn about different people and their cultures. In each of us, he instilled value for human life and our differences, and the importance of finding meaningful ways to contribute to a greater cause than oneself. He always felt that if you were given opportunities, your job was to give back. As adults, we all do mission-based work, motivated by the morals and ethics Dad instilled in us early in our youth.
Circa 2015, Dad was one of the lead physician advocates for Colorado’s End-of-Life Options Act, also commonly referred to as death with dignity, which became Colorado law in 2016. He believed passionately that people with less than six months to live should have the autonomy to decide when it was time to go and have the medical assistance to die peacefully, and avoid excessive suffering. He fought hard to pass this bill — writing op-eds, obtaining petition signatures, giving interviews and doing endless research. We are so proud of the work he did.
Informed by his experience as a hospice doctor, he was committed to minimizing the suffering he witnessed too many patients endure without the freedom in determining when enough was enough. When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2007, then with chronic lymphocytic leukemia a few years later, he worried he would also be without self-determination at the end of life.
Because Dad had been so vocal about his support, medical aid in dying was a topic the whole family was well aware of. Before the law passed, he was petrified that he wouldn’t have the option in Colorado and considered that he may have to explore unconventional means to end his suffering if the bill did not become law. Thankfully it didn’t come to that.
Dad didn’t know whether he wanted to take the medication, but he wanted to have the option. He wanted to know that if he was suffering badly that there was a way out. We talked about it frequently one-on-one and as a family. Because we talked about his end-of-life values and wishes for years, it wasn’t a scary or uncomfortable topic. We knew what he wanted and it was easy to support his decision.
Having been a part of this process was one of the most beautiful and empowering gifts we could give to our father: to allow someone to make that decision for themselves.
We’re heartbroken and relieved all at the same time. He’s free from the body that served him for years but in the end broke down as he fought Parkinson’s, leukemia, symptoms of COPD and a fractured kneecap. Over his last year, several falls and medical complications made his world smaller and smaller. In his last weeks, he was suffering from unrelenting pain and having to take Vicodin every two hours. The pain was so severe, he would physically change colors.
In December 2020 he obtained approval from two doctors qualifying him to use aid-in-dying medications. We met as a family, and Dad shared that in all likelihood he would take his prescription in the early months of the new year. We asked about his bucket list. Then we asked: How do you see your final day if it comes to that? What’s the music that you want playing in the background? Do you want to be at home?
In mid-January 2021 the prescription was called into the pharmacy. Once he got the medications, he was visibly a lot more relaxed and relieved. He didn’t have a plan. He wasn’t ready then, but knowing that he had permission and approval was a big weight off of his mind. It allowed him to live more fully in those last months.
High on Dad’s bucket list was a final visit to Moab, Utah — one of his favorite places on the planet, where he had biked all of the most extreme mountain bike trails. In March, our family gathered and made the trek to spend three days together. Dad fractured his kneecap from a fall in early March, before our trip to Utah, and knee replacement surgery was not an option for him with his leukemia. Though he was in a lot of pain he still enjoyed driving through the beautiful landscape and talking about all the crazy rides we had done over the years. We of course also watched Top Gun, one of his favorite movies, and where he got his nickname, Doc Viper.
At the end of March, in excruciating pain from the leg brace he would need to wear for four months to heal his knee, Dad calmly told all of us that it was time — he was ready to go. He’d been thinking about it and when he would be ready. He made his decision on Saturday and took his aid-in-dying prescription on Wednesday. We all basically moved in for those four days.
We spent every precious hour together. Those days were extraordinary. We listened to Dad’s stories, prepared his favorite meals, spent time in the sunshine, called his loved ones to say goodbye, looked at photos, helped him be as pain-free as possible and told him we loved him a thousand times. There were lots of tears, of course, but also laughter and joy. In the four days we spent with him preparing for his death, we never once saw him waver from this conviction, and we asked often, right up to the last moment. He felt calm and ready. His decision brought him real peace.
On Wednesday, April 7, 2021, we circled around him for the final time. Our family and a family friend were present in our parents’ home with our dad. He was surrounded by family photos and bright flowers, looking out onto the sunshine of our backyard. Leading up to this, we asked our family and friends to light a candle for him, drink a Fat Tire or bourbon, to hold our dad in their hearts beginning at 1 p.m. as he made his final move from this world. We were all connected to Dad, all across the world. We each would have a chance to say goodbye, and then he would drink the final dose of what he called “the magic medicine” at 1 p.m.
There were three stages to the medication Dad would take over the span of one hour. Before the first two doses, Shannon asked Dad if he was sure he wanted to take the medication and said he could change his mind at any point; Dad took the first two doses with tears and a smile and replied yes. Just before Dad took his final dose of medicine, Shannon calmly asked him one last time, “Are you certain about this?”
Then Dad answered with a resounding yes.
Dad got one more chance to say he was 100% certain about his decision, and that affirmation was comforting. We held hands, sobbed, gently rubbed his arms and legs, and told him to be free; that it was okay to go, that we loved him, as we witnessed his soul rise out of his old and broken body.
By 1:13 p.m. he was gone. The experience was gut-wrenching and beautiful at the same time, something so peaceful and full of dignity and grace. We are proud of our father and all he had fought for. He got to reap the fruits of the legislation he fought so hard to pass. Instead of being forced to live in a broken body and withering mind, coping with severe and unrelenting pain, he instead got peace.
To see someone face their death in such a calm and clear way was incredibly profound. Death doesn’t have to happen behind closed doors. Our experience has shifted our support from theoretical to very personal. It’s become clear how important this option is and that everyone deserves that autonomy.
Since our Dad’s death, we have all had the opportunity to share our family experience through conversations with friends. The reaction has been one of gratitude and inspiration. People have maybe heard of the option, but they hadn’t thought about having these conversations ahead of time or thought through what it means to make the decision and how to move forward. Sharing our story has brought this law to light and given those in our circle the courage to have end-of-life discussions before they are crucial. Our dad would love that his story continues to inspire and help people.
Boulder Daily Camera - Guest opinion: Our father’s empowered death