Tucked away in a closet in Christy O’Donnell’s Valencia, Calif., home is a white binder entitled “Bailey’s To-Do List.” Inside are meticulously detailed instructions on everything from Christy’s will to her power of attorney, along with a sealed letter the 46-year-old former LAPD sergeant and trial attorney wrote to her daughter Bailey Donorovich, 20. (Instruction No. 1: “Read my letter!”) The folder is ready for Bailey to open at what will surely be the toughest moment of her young life. “The chance of my daughter coming home and finding me dead is fairly high,” Christy tells PEOPLE. “A 20-year-old is going to panic.”
In anticipation of death, as she always has in life, she wants her daughter to be prepared. Diagnosed last June with terminal lung cancer that had spread to her brain, Christy knows the end is near, but she is fighting with every ounce of energy she has for control over her final moments. Inspired by Brittany Maynard—the terminally ill 29-year-old who captured the world’s attention when she legally ended her life Nov. 1 under Oregon’s “death with dignity” law—Christy is pushing for passage of a similar law in California, which was Maynard’s home state as well. (It was Maynard’s campaign that got the legislation introduced in California in January; hearings begin March 25.) If Christy’s disease takes its natural course, she’s been told, “I will drown in my own fluids,” she says. “That’s not an experience anyone would want.”
Right now, Christy is riding the roller coaster of a terminal illness. “On my good days I feel fatigued,” says Christy, who has lost much of her long brown hair to chemo. “On my bad days I’m bedridden with headaches.” While one-shot radiation reduced the size of her brain tumors, Dr. Karo Arzoo, her hematologist/oncologist at UCLA, says “there is currently no cure” for her lung cancer, and she is ineligible for most clinical trials. For now, he says, the plan is for chemotherapy every three weeks. For how long? “Until it stops working or the side effects become intolerable.” Going public about their battle was not an easy decision for mother or daughter. Before she spoke with PEOPLE, Christy had told only a handful of family members, friends and coworkers about her illness. Bailey, a college sophomore who works full-time at a pet store, is so painfully shy “she’s taking a speech class ONLINE,” Christy says, laughing. Bailey teases her mom for being as chatty as she is quiet. “She’ll talk to you forever!” Of the cancer, Bailey says, “I barely talk about it, let alone with people I don’t know.”
The two have always been inseparable. Christy, who is twice divorced and raised Bailey mostly as a single mom, went to law school while working as a cop. She got permission to take Bailey, then 6, to class with her one semester because Bailey was having separation anxiety. “She came with her blankie, coloring books and a mini video player – with headphones – for her Disney movies,” recalls Christy, smiling at the memory. “She sat under the table, hanging on to my pant leg. She’s always come first.”
Christy was thriving as a partner in a law firm when, one morning last June, she found she couldn’t understand words in the legal documents she was reading. After a series of tests, she got the diagnosis: stage 4 lung adenocarcinoma with a prognosis of less than six months – a grim timeline she has beaten. Not yet in need of in-home care, she has a close circle of relatives and friends who check in with her daily. She is determined to stay alive until Bailey’s 21st birthday on June 23: They have been planning a trip to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas along with other close family. “To have her there would mean everything to me,” Bailey says.
Before then, Christy is focused on making progress in her right-to-die campaign, with help from Compassion & Choices, with which she’s partnered (and which also worked with Maynard). She knows it won’t be easy. “Our concern,” says Marilyn Golden, a spokeswoman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, “is not for the people who would willingly use this but for the many who would be endangered without their consent by such a law.”
If right-to-die legislation doesn’t come in time for her, “I won’t break the law,” Christy says. “I’ve spent my entire career upholding it.” But she’s hoping that on July 1, after that birthday trip to the Bahamas, she can end her life in her own bed with her daughter holding her hand. “That was our plan,” she says. “It’s an injustice that I can’t die the way I want to.”