Terminally Ill California Mom: Why Can't I Die on My Own Terms?
Los Angeles attorney Christy O’Donnell was reading some legal documents last June when something strange happened.
“Every third or fourth word, I knew what the letters were but I could not figure out cognitively what the words meant,” she tells PEOPLE.
She made an appointment to see her ophthalmologist that same day, only to find out her vision was perfect. So she called her primary care physician and described the symptoms to her.
“She said, ‘I want you to go to the emergency room immediately,’ ” says O’Donnell, 46, a former Los Angeles police officer and single mom of a 20-year-old daughter.
Within hours, O’Donnell and her daughter, Bailey Donorovich, got devastating news: O’Donnell had Stage IV lung adenocarcinoma – lung cancer that, in O’Donnell’s case, had spread to her brain. She had one golf-ball-size tumor in her lung and three in her brain. One, also the size of a golf ball, was near her left eye.
O’Donnell knew deep inside what all those tumors meant.
“Bailey grabbed my hand and I just started crying and said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” O’Donnell says, her eyes welling at the memory. “What I was really saying was, ‘I’m so sorry I’m going to die and leave you without a mom.’ ”
A Dire Prognosis
Days later, doctors told O’Donnell she had less than six months to live.
Though she has outlived that prognosis thanks to chemotherapy treatments every three weeks and a one-shot radiation treatment that reduced the size of all three brain tumors, O’Donnell, motivated by the legacy of Brittany Maynard, has decided to use the remaining time she has left to push for a Death with Dignity law in California so she can end her own life at their Valencia, California, home, with Bailey by her side.
“My doctor has tried to get me into every clinical trial there is,” she says. “There is not anything medically we have not explored. So it is not like I haven’t exhausted all my options. My opinion is an informed one.”
Her doctor told her she is likely to die by “drowning in her own fluids” from her lung cancer, she says.
“I think it’s a terrible injustice that I don’t have the choice to die in the manner I want to and instead that I’m forced to very likely die in protracted pain and I might even die alone,” she says.
Bailey says she supports her mom.
“The doctors told us that her passing will be painful,” she says, tearing up. “It’s not something I want to see.”
Maynard, 29, was dying of brain cancer and moved from California to Oregon last June, with her husband, Dan Diaz, 43, and mother, Debbie Ziegler, 58, and stepfather, Gary Holmes, so she could get access to the state’s Death with Dignity Act.
She ended her own life on Nov. 1, with medication prescribed by her doctor.
O’Donnell says she, too, thought about moving to Oregon but did not want to disrupt Bailey, who attends college in Pasadena, California, has a full-time job – with benefits – at PetSmart and has friends and family close by.
After making sure there are no legal loopholes that would allow her to die the way she wants to in California, O’Donnell decided to go public with her story. She also reached out to Compassion & Choices, the advocacy group Maynard partnered with to launch her campaign for right-to-die laws nationwide last October.
O’Donnell said she decided to campaign for the law after her doctor told her she most likely wouldn’t live to see Bailey’s 21st birthday on June 23 – the reason she’s been fighting to stay alive.
She and Bailey have been planning a trip to Atlantis in the Bahamas for the past five years to celebrate the milestone. O’Donnell’s aunt and uncle and brother and sister-in-law are supposed to go as well.
“Our plan has always been that, if it were legal in California, I would do her birthday trip, then I would have chosen physician-aided death on July 1,” she says. “I’m sad and upset that’s not a possibility.”
Bailey calls her each day before she comes home, she says.
“You want to know why?” O’Donnell says. “She wants to make sure I’m alive before she gets home. And she always gets so excited to hear my voice. It’s like, ‘Oh, thank God. My mom’s not dead.’ So who should have to go through that, right?”
Having enforced or defended the law nearly all of her adult life, O’Donnell says she won’t break it but she will do her best to change it before she dies.
“I don’t have any bucket list,” she says. “I’ve had an amazing life. Bailey wants me to be there for her birthday so that’s what I’m living for. We’re just praying I make that.”