Stories from Texas

Texas Death With Dignity

Stories from Texas

These stories originally appeared at the website of the Death with Dignity National Center.

Jenny Cooper: To Peacefully Fall Asleep – 

Jenny “Coopdizzle” Cooper is a mother, wife, and cancer fighter in San Angelo, Texas.     (Feb 2019)

Amy Neese: A Different Path

Amy Neese is a journalism teacher in Amarillo, Texas.   (December 2014)

A longer version of this story first appeared on Amy’s blog Life, Laughter and a Double Espresso.
I lost my father in September 2014, shortly before Brittany Maynard’s story broke. He was only 61 and like Brittany, he suffered from a cancer that required brain radiation. He took the chance with treatment, and then we watched as every one of Brittany’s fears materialized in my father. The radiation ultimately caused brain necrosis; the necrosis slowly but effectively ate his brain one section at a time. Although the treatment bought him more time, my father lost his quality of life. By then, he had been in chronic pain and constant angst for four years.

My family and I were forced to helplessly watch the slow, brutal process of losing him a piece at a time. We sat beside him through numerous painful surgeries and recoveries. We stood by him as his ability to perform simple life tasks began to fail—drive a car, hold a fork, move his feet. We watched as he lost ability to comprehend and process information. We cried when he lost ability to communicate and recognize things familiar. We held his hand as he agonized from morphine-resistant pain, and fought back tears when he told us he was ready to go. In the end, we sat beside him in hospice, waiting, praying for God to bring him peace. The process was torture on my sweet daddy; the experience was heartbreaking for us.

Meanwhile, Brittany died in her own bed, surrounded by family and listening to her favorite music. She still had her mind and her dignity.

I can’t say which way to exit this world is best; I can’t say if that final act will have any bearing on the eternal soul. I can only wonder, if given the chance again, would my dad have chosen a different path?

(December 2014)

Brenda Willis: Stay Out of My Personal Business

Brenda Willis is an advertising coordinator in Dallas, Texas  (August 2015)

I watched both my very dear grandparents suffer until their deaths from cancer. My grandfather died from pancreatic cancer 14 years ago; my grandmother from breast cancer five years ago.

As devout Catholics who prayed every day, they would likely not have chosen Death with Dignity even if it had been legal in Texas. But I wonder what last memory they would have chosen for their family to have of them: one of peace and closure at home where I used to visit them in summertime and on weekends, or one that actually happened. They each died in a cold, sterile room, starving themselves to death and pumped with morphine.

When I saw the documentary How to Die in Oregon, it hit me that I am not the only one who believes that Death with Dignity should be legal everywhere for those who are dying from a terminal illness. I want everyone to have a choice. It might not be for you, for religious or any other reason, but you should have the option to die peacefully if you have an illness that is killing you.

I want people to stay out of my personal business. If you aren’t hurting anyone or if your decision does not affect them personally, it’s not their decision to make. I don’t want anybody to make the decision for me.  

Brenda Willis’s grandparents

Brenda Willis with her grandmother.

Death with Dignity advocate Brenda Willis with her grandfather

Frances D.: To Have a Choice

Frances D. is a retired hospice nurse in Texas (August 2015)

My husband Bill was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in April 2014 and spent the next eight months in agony as the cancer spread. The medications he received from hospice near the end could barely dull the pain. I spent those days being his nurse and companion, watching him suffer. Many nights I cried myself to sleep because I could not help him enough. 

No one should have to live the trauma we both lived through. I am slowly recovering from this long painful experience, and I still question whether I did enough. I have talked to other widows who lost their spouses and they all think they could have done more or been more supportive.

For many years I worked as a hospice nurse. I am glad to see the medical profession slowly recognizing there needs to be more education about end-of-life options in hospitals and elsewhere. Too many times those conversations take place at the very end when people are too emotional and unable make rational decisions. Being educated before you are ill or incapacitated from illness means you can make more intelligent choices when you are facing a crisis or impending death.

I encourage more states to adopt the laws that Oregon, Washington, and Vermont have already. Everyone with a terminal illness needs to be able to have a choice as to how and when they are going to die.

Frances D. with her husband Bill

Penny Shelfer: I Want to Control My Ending

Penny Shelfer is an advocate in League City, Texas. Penny Shelfer died on November 21, 2015.

For seventeen years before I was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in July of 2008, I processed meteorite samples at the Johnson Space Center. I had married in October of 2006. It was such a devastating blow to hear, less than two years later, that not only did I have breast cancer, it was an aggressive form known as Her2 that had to be treated with Herceptin along with chemotherapy and radiation. My oncologist told me that my chances of survival were statistically less than a 50 percent—he called it “a coin toss.”

After my mastectomy, I went to a specialized women’s mastectomy boutique to be fitted for breast forms. There was a Help Wanted sign in the window seeking a fitter. I applied, and for the next four years I helped women be properly fitted for breast prostheses and compression garments.

Through my work at the mastectomy boutique, I was involved with many women and their families dealing with breast cancer. Some of my beloved clients didn’t make it. Day after day, as I helped clients live with their surgically altered appearance, I supported them in every way that I could to help ease them through this unwelcome transition.

I left the job in 2012 to take care of my ailing parents. Watching them both slowly succumb to disease put me square in the face of death. I saw that, as helpful as it is for those who are dying, hospice doesn’t always provide completely pain-free sedation. Hospice simply doesn’t provide enough relief in some cases.

Through these experiences I learned to have no fear of dying. We’re all going to die. But I don’t want to experience unnecessary suffering. Even more importantly, I don’t want to put my family through the hell of watching me die in unbearable pain.

The How to Die in Oregon documentary resonated with me. Death with Dignity should be an option for everyone. If I do become terminal and pain management and hospice are no longer working, I want to control my own ending.

When I say physician-assisted dying should be an option for everyone I really do mean “option.” No one is forced to use it, and if you who disagree with it you don’t have to. But those like myself who do want it, should be able to decide whether they want to use it.

It’s like choosing a religion. You can choose any faith you want, or none, if you want. Not everyone is going to agree with your choice and they don’t have to. The key is, you have the option to choose or not to choose.

In life, everybody deserves the right to make their own decisions. If you choose how to live your life, you should be able to choose how to die.

I am now a full-time volunteer advocate for Death with Dignity in Texas. No doubt it will take some years to pass this law here in my state, but I’m going to either see Death with Dignity become law in Texas, or die trying.

(August 2015)


Frances D. with her husband Bill

Angela Large: People Everywhere Should Have the Choice

Angela Large is a long-time veterinary technician in Alvin, Texas.  (August 2015)

In 1998 my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She underwent a surgery but the disease progressed and she ended up suffering immensely. Though doctors kept saying pain management was making my mom more comfortable, it wasn’t enough.

My mom knew about Oregon’s then-new law and told me she wanted the option. I researched it but relocation just wasn’t feasible. Because in our state, we had no way of helping her end her life peacefully, she continued suffering for months, even with the help of hospice. She died three weeks after she’d stopped eating and drinking.

The experience has haunted me day and night since. No person should have to go through what she went through. I’ll never be the same, everything inside me changed.

You shouldn’t have to uproot yourself and your family to use the Death with Dignity option. People everywhere should have the choice to prevent their own undue suffering at the end of life.

Angela Large as a girl with her family

Angela Large before her mother’s death

Cindy Merrill: Sensible Minds Will Prevail

Cindy Merrill is a retired Harris County prosecutor living in Bellaire, Texas.  (August 2015)

On a bright Texas day in 1996 while I was visiting my parents, my 87-year old father told me, “Cindy, please get me a gun, I can’t go on like this.”

A “Daddy’s girl” through and through, I recoiled with a gasp. I couldn’t imagine him gone, especially not like that. He quickly said he didn’t mean it. But we both knew he was serious.

He had been a decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, a respected builder, an active member of his church and his community, and a loving family man. In his retirement, he traveled, gardened, read the newspapers every day, planned his high school reunions, and volunteered at a hospital.

Over time he became incapable of all these activities, of even caring for himself, and ended up enduring a diminished life. When he asked me for a gun, he was broken from a cycle of misery and suffering, enfeebled and exhausted from lung problems and advanced Parkinson’s disease, no longer capable of walking but a few steps and never without a walker. He yearned for death.

Busy with my career as a prosecutor in Houston, I didn’t have that much time to think about the issue of death and dying. But as I watched my father’s incredible decline and especially after that request, I started to think, ‘Why does anyone have to go through this?’

My Daddy died in 1997 at the age of 88, most likely from a stroke following surgery and rehabilitation for a broken hip. A part of me believes he willed himself to die.

Since then, and even more so after I retired, I have been seriously thinking about our responsibility, as human beings, to those in the throes of intractable pain and suffering at the end of life. A book I’ve discovered asks an important question in its title: Must We Suffer Our Way to Death? I believe the answer is a resounding No.

I have attended end-of-life conferences, read everything I could on the topic, and became more and more involved in advocating for people to have the freedom in their healthcare and end-of-life decisions. In 2013, I co-founded, with my friend Penny Shelfer, a grassroots advocacy group, Texas Death with Dignity.

I support Death with Dignity because it is an important option for qualified terminally ill patients seeking a peaceful death. To me, as a retired attorney, the Death with Dignity laws are well written, with incredible safeguards. Death with Dignity legislation gives people who are terminally ill tremendous relief by offering the opportunity to access it if they need and decide to use it.

It’s going to take many years here in Texas for a Death with Dignity law to pass. What motivates me to advocate for this option despite the odds is both witnessing what my father went through and knowing that there are thousands of people experiencing what he did. That’s why I’ll continue to give talks, write op-eds and letters to the editor, talk to my Representatives and Senators, and do anything and everything else to support this movement. Texas will have a death with dignity law one day because sensible minds will prevail.

Cindy Merrill with her Dad

Melissa Wood: A Peaceful Way

Melissa Wood is natural health professional in San Antonio, Texas. (December 2015)

I support Death with Dignity because of my experience dealing with the deaths of my parents. I was 23 in 1988 when my mom was diagnosed with liver and lung cancer and my father with Alzheimer’s. After he became too ill to live at home, we moved him to a nursing facility, and my mom came to live with me. I took care of her during the last year of her life. It was horrific. None of her treatments worked or helped, they only prolonged the inevitable. Her suffering was awful and unimaginable.

When I was diagnosed with Stage III cervical cancer a year later, I swore I would never go through what my mom did. I underwent a surgery but refused both chemotherapy and radiation, even though doctors said I would die without them. I chose instead the path of wellness and nutritional therapy and didn’t have to die the way my mom, or my dad a few years later, did. Five years later, doctors told me I was cured.

Everybody is going to die, whether it’s by accident, due to an injury, or from an illness. I’m okay with the accident and injury, but I refuse to suffer a life filled with suffering from a drawn-out illness. I want to be able to control my ending.

I want to have legislation passed in Texas so that I can control my own death. Unfortunately, this is a conservative, religious state that does not allow me to do that. I believe that, if I am terminally ill, no religion or person should dictate when it’s my time to go. I should be able to decide when I can die in a humane and peaceful, not a violent, way.

Melissa Wood