California Single Mom Fights for Right to Die

Christy O'Donnell was diagnosed with terminal stage four cancer.

ByABC News
May 19, 2015, 5:10 PM

— -- Christy O'Donnell doesn't want to die, but she doesn't want to spend the rest of her good days fearing the painful death that awaits her as she struggles with terminal cancer, she said.

"The most likely way that I’m going to die with the lung cancer is that my left lung will fill with fluid, I’ll start drowning in my own fluid," she says in a YouTube video posted this week by Compassion and Choices, the nonprofit aid-in-dying group that Brittany Maynard worked with before ending her life last fall. "If I get to a hospital, they'll very painfully put a tube in. They’ll drain the fluid from my lung, only to patch me up, send me home and wait until the next time my lung fills up with fluid. And they'll continue to repeat that process and drowning painfully until I die."

O'Donnell, a 46-year-old single mother from Santa Clarita, California, is fighting for the right to die on her own terms, following in the footsteps of Maynard, 29, who brought death-with-dignity laws to national attention when she moved from California to Oregon after being diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, in order to legally end her life with a medication prescribed by a doctor.

A right-to-die bill is making its way through the California legislature, but O'Donnell told ABC's Los Angeles station, KABC, that it probably won't be passed in time for her. On Friday, she joined a group of terminal patients in suing California officials in an attempt to get the right to die sooner.

However, there is opposition.

"The question of assisted suicide policy needs to be considered in terms of how it impacts the broader society, particularly the most vulnerable, without economic means or health access, as well as people living with serious disabilities whose options are often diminished," Californians Against Assisted Suicide spokeswoman Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst for the Disability Rights Educational and Defense Fund, said in a statement in response to O'Donnell's suit.

"These lawsuits and legislation like California Senate Bill 128 are not simply exercises in autonomy for such individuals," the statement added. "Hopefully our court system and legislators take into account the broader implications, particularly in a state as diverse as California. This latest effort does not change in the least the aggressive opposition from progressives like myself and a diverse range of organizations against assisted suicide."

PHOTO: Attorney Christy O'Donnell is seen with her daughter Bailey.
Attorney Christy O'Donnell is seen with her daughter Bailey.

O'Donnell was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a lung cancer she explains is common among non-smokers. She said she's a vegetarian, that she's always exercised and that she's never smoked. According to the lawsuit, she has been given six months to live. The cancer has spread to her brain, liver, rib and spine, and she is morphine intolerant, so it's hard to manage her pain.

The former Los Angeles Police Department detective and practicing lawyer has said that she's lived "10 people's lives" in the last 46 years, and she's not afraid to die.

She called motherhood the greatest joy in her life, but said she doesn't want her 20-year-old daughter to be traumatized by her death. Instead, O'Donnell wants to peacefully die in bed, holding her daughter's hand, with the knowledge that there will be a support system set up for her daughter when it’s over.

"I don't want my daughter to come home and find me dead," O'Donnell told KABC, her voice breaking.

"Every day, when my daughter is coming home from work, she calls me on the phone to talk to me," O'Donnell says in her YouTube video. "You know why? She wants to know before she gets home if I'm still alive."

O'Donnell was not immediately available to speak directly to ABC News.

Even if O'Donnell's lawsuit fails, she said she hopes that one day, her daughter will hear that a death-with-dignity law has passed.

"If it doesn't happen in my lifetime, I will die knowing and believing that it will happen in my daughter's lifetime," she told the station. "At some point in her life, she'll be standing there and she'll hear that the law has passed or changed, and she'll know that from that moment on, that nobody else is going to have to suffer the way she saw me suffer. And then she'll know that it was all worth it."

PHOTO: Christy O'Donnell was an LAPD sergeant and had investigated hundreds of suicides.
Christy O'Donnell was an LAPD sergeant and had investigated hundreds of suicides.