With renewed urgency about her impending death, a California woman filed a lawsuit Friday asking the state courts to immediately allow her doctor to prescribe medication without criminal prosecution that would end her life before terminal cancer can kill her.
“I am dying within the next months, and I am going to die painfully,” Christy O’Donnell, 46, a Los Angeles attorney and former LAPD sergeant, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.
“I am asking the courts for intervention to issue an order so that a doctor can legally prescribe a medication so that I don’t have to die painfully, and so that every moment before I die, I don’t have to spend afraid and worried about the painful manner in which I’m going to die.”
O’Donnell is one of three patients with advanced cancer – though the only one who is terminally ill – named in the lawsuit who are working with Compassion & Choices, an advocacy organization that supports right-to-die legislation filed in at least 23 states, plus Washington D.C. She was inspired by the story of the late Brittany Maynard to reach out to the group.
“Christy is a profile in courage for many other dying people who face unbearable suffering in their final days that even the best hospice and palliative care cannot relieve,” says Compassion & Choices National Director of Legal Advocacy Kevin D az, who also worked with Maynard, a death-with-dignity advocate.
“As Brittany recognized, these people desperately need the option of medical aid in dying so they can die painlessly, peacefully in their sleep – and they need it now – before it’s too late,” says Diaz, who is working with John Kappos, a Newport Beach-California based partner in the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, on the lawsuit.
The group also released a new video of O’Donnell.
Diagnosed last summer with Stage IV cancer in her lung that spread to her brain O’Donnell learned last month that chemotherapy treatments had lost their effectiveness, and the cancer had spread to her liver, left rib and L1 vertebrae, which supports the weight of the upper body.
Her worsening condition was revealed after she was admitted to the hospital April 21 for several days “because the pain in my back had gotten so excruciating I could barely walk.”
“I am no longer considered stable,” says O’Donnell, who lives in Valencia, California, with her 20-year-old daughter, Bailey Donorovich. If new chemotherapy treatments fail as well, “my prognosis is maybe June or July.”
And while she supports right-to-die legislation currently advancing through the California Legislature, she participated in filing the lawsuit now, she says, because “I can’t wait. 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.
“I want to make crystal-clear that my decision to file this lawsuit is not because I do not have faith in our Legislature,” she says. ” I do have great faith in our legislature, which is demonstrated by the fact that I was up there on March 25th testifying.
“But the legislative process is a very long process,” she says. “It’s highly unlikely that the current pending legislation will come to a conclusion at any time in my lifetime.”
Though friends of hers have started an online fundraiser to help care for her daughter after she is gone, she emphasized that she is not asking for any money with this lawsuit – just the right to die on her own terms.
“I want to make sure that people understand: We’re not asking for a dime,” she says. “We’re just asking for help. It’s not selfish to not want your child to watch you suffer, and it’s not selfish to not want to suffer.
“And it’s not selfish to not want your doctor to have to go to jail for trying to help you.”
An Old Law
The California law that currently makes it a felony to assist anyone in taking their own life was passed in 1873, she says.
“That was the year they abolished slavery in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico,” she says, and also a time when her native state, Hawaii, was still a monarchy.
“To know that the the law that’s keeping me from dying peacefully and forcing my daughter to watch me die suffering was passed during a time when slavery is still legal in one of our states or territories, and that another of our states, Hawaii, wasn’t even a state, is frustrating to me,” she says. “The law is supposed to change according to the needs of society.”
“The opponents argue that pain medication these days should be able to take care of everything. The opponents agree ‘she doesn’t have to die painfully,'” says O’Donnell. But each person reacts differently to pain medication, and “in my case, I get violently ill.”
“I had morphine for the first time in the hospital on April 21st,” she says. “And it did not react well with my body, and I got violently sick. I’m tried Norco, and my body cannot handle Norco. I’ve tried Oxycodone and my body cannot handle Oxycodone.
“I’m currently taking Tramadol, which is one of the only drugs that my body’s been able to tolerate, but that doesn’t take away all of the pain,” she says. “I live with about a 4 or 5 pain level.”
“My doctors can give me enough pain medication to knock me out so that I’m fairly unconscious and I don’t feel most of my pain. But if I can’t be cognitive, I cannot communicate with my daughter. I cannot communicate with my loved ones and my friends. That’s not living.”
From the start of her diagnosis, O’Donnell has looked forward and tried to hang on to celebrate her daughter’s 21st birthday at Atlantis in the Bahamas on June 23. (They couldn’t afford to stay at Atlantis so they are doing a cruise that stops off at Atlantis for a day instead.) She’s kept that as her goal. Plane tickets have been purchased and arrangements locked down.
“I have fewer good days now,” she says, “but it doesn’t mean that the days aren’t precious.”
With the news that her cancer has spread, her doctors have launched two new and different chemotherapy treatments.
“My doctors say that if those two types of chemo don’t work, we’re going to be back to the first scenario, which is either I don’t make it to my daughter’s birthday, or I’m too sick to go on the trip,” she says.
“I’m just going to have faith that I make it,” she says. “We pray that the chemo works.”