By the time TJ Mutchler was ready to end his own life on Feb. 19, he had already said his goodbyes.
After the 36-year-old man was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the previous November and told he had just weeks to live, his family and friends quickly put together two “going away” parties for him — one at his mother’s home in Billings, Montana, and another at his favorite watering hole where he had a huge group of friends.
Hundreds of people came, says his mom.
“We just got together and laughed and told TJ stories and we took pictures with him and everybody got to hug each other,” his mother, Leslie Mutchler, tells PEOPLE. “We set up a notebook that asked people to write a final message to TJ because it might be the last time they’d get the chance to do that.”
“TJ wrote a note next to the book that said: ‘Please write a note to TJ (me) to say goodbye,’ ” she says. “He posed with pictures and it was just very sweet. We had a lot of laughs. We cried, of course, and lots of hugs. It was very healing for people because we had just found this out and he was such a young guy.
“His friends are all young people and it’s hard to wrap yourself around death at that age,” says Leslie, 56, a nurse practitioner. “Some people felt a little awkward, saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’ve never done this before’ and it was like, ‘Well, I want you guys to come and see him while you can.’ It was, ‘Let’s not get together for his funeral. Let’s get together to celebrate his life while he’s still alive.’ ”
Two months later, when his quality of life became so bad he was vomiting constantly and had dropped another 25 lbs. from his 6-foot-5-inch frame, he called his family and told them he was ready to die.
“My mother, his dad, his brother, me, his best friend and Keri, his girlfriend, were all with him at the end,” she says. “We all gave him a hug and said goodbye and he administered his medication. He had a feeding tube that he was able to use so he didn’t have to try to swallow and keep it down, which probably would have been impossible at the end.
“Then he went into his bedroom and we went there with him,” she says. “He fell asleep within 10 minutes of taking the medication and three hours later he was gone. It was comfortable. It was peaceful.”
Montana is one of six states — plus Washington, D.C. — nationwide where medical aid in dying is legal.
The day after TJ died, Republican lawmaker Brad Tschida introduced a bill that would overturn that decision and make physicians who prescribe the life-ending medication liable to be charged with homicide if they do so. Leslie plans to testify against it Friday at a hearing before the Montana House Judiciary Committee.
“It’s a choice I want to make sure we have,” she says. “And I think I’m in a position to tell a story of how we got it and to actually see it in use and how much peace it gave to TJ and his family as well. The fact that it could be reversed is very distressing to me.”
“If you can think of the worst flu you’ve ever had and you get the cold sweats and then have someone stab a hot poker in your insides and just twist it around,” TJ says in the video, referring to the pain he was experiencing. “It’s hard for me to talk about it. Looking at it, man, I am going to die. I don’t want to.”
Opponents plan to vigorously fight the proposed law.
“This legislation gives new meaning to the term ‘draconian,’ ” said Jessica Grennan, the Montana-based National Director of Political Affairs and Advocacy for Compassion & Choices. “Threatening doctors who want to offer their terminally ill patients the option of a peaceful death with homicide and the death penalty is beyond the pale.”
Supporters say the law should be overturned.
“As a disabled person, I have a great deal of experience with the health care establishment devaluing lives like mine,” Carrie Ann Lucas, executive director of Disabled Parents Rights, tells PEOPLE. “In a profit-driven health care system, mistakes will be made, and lives will be lost through coercion and abuse. I view this as a social justice issue, and want the law to protect society’s most vulnerable.”
While TJ’s death was peaceful, his last weeks he was in constant pain, Leslie says.
“Hospice was great and they did everything they could but the medications could not reach his symptoms toward the end,” she says. “Even all along, the vomiting was never under control. He just endured it and by the end, the last weekend, before he finally decided it was time, he was vomiting almost continuously and could barely get out of bed anymore.”
“He had said, ‘When I can’t get up and move around I don’t want to continue on,’ ” she says. “It was heartbreaking to watch.”
TJ, who had been suffering from what he thought was pancreatis for two years before pancreatic cancer was diagnosed last Nov. 9, was 6 foot 5 inches tall and down to 125 lbs. (from his pre-illness weight of 240 lbs.) when he died. He very quickly realized he wanted to make sure he could end his own pain when it became too much for him and decided to utilize the state’s Death with Dignity law.
At first he had trouble finding a doctor who would prescribe the medication, but he finally did find one and had the medication within a week, she says.
“Once he got the medication he was pretty comforted and found that he wanted to keep on living and not use it,” she says. “Now that he knew he had it he didn’t feel such a need to use it anymore because he had options. It gave him control of how things were able to go from there on.”
It was a choice he was able to make because of his own grandfather, Bob Baxter. On Dec. 31, 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in a suit filed by Compassion & Choices on Baxter’s behalf, that: “…we find no indication in Montana law that physician aid in dying provided to terminally ill, mentally competent adult patients is against public policy.”
Baxter died of lymphoma on Dec. 5, 2008, just hours after a state district court ruled in his favor.
“He had terminal cancer and his pain was miserable and at one point he was uncomfortable enough he thought about shooting himself,” Leslie says. “And he just wanted it to be a cleaner way to go, a more compassionate way for him and for the people who were going to be left behind.
“He knew toward the end the decision wouldn’t be made in time for him but he said, ‘I’ve got to do this because other people need to have this choice’ ” she says. “Nobody ever could have dreamed that someone close to him would be the one that might be able to use it. It boggles the mind.”