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The Peace of Death on Your Own Terms: Celebrating My Brother’s Story

Christina Ogata

One does not typically think about death as a celebratory time. We tend to focus on the long and full lives we hope to live, and quiet the knowledge that each of our deaths is coming one day.

My older brother Doug lived a bold and dynamic life. As a young man, he was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. He later founded a granola brand in Oregon and became a pioneer in the organic foods movement. He was a total baseball head, and invented a board game about the sport. He was also a gifted musician, author, and lover of the arts. He was a composer and performer, including playing trombone and piano in a jazz ensemble. Growing up, my sisters and I were mostly classical musicians; he was our rock and roller.

Sadly, in May 2014, Doug received a diagnosis of Multiple System Atrophy-Parkinsonian type (MSA-P), a neurodegenerative disease for which there is no effective treatment. This came after years of living with increasing pain throughout his body while pursuing a diagnosis for a variety of other symptoms: blood pressure dips, REM sleep disorder, and body temperature regulation disorder, among others.

By 2021, Doug’s deterioration was accelerating. He had trouble swallowing and his mental faculties were diminishing; he struggled with short-term memory loss as well as a very bad tremor. He was in excruciating pain and could not stand for more than a few minutes at a time. He wrote that he felt “hemmed in at every turn. Life should be more than enduring various therapies in a futile attempt to keep death at bay.” So, he began to think about a peaceful exit.

Doug had the option of medical aid in dying where he lived, due to the 2021 passage of the New Mexico End of Life Options Act. Multiple doctors agreed that Doug qualified: he was terminally ill with a prognosis of six months or less to live, he was mentally capable of making his own healthcare decisions, and he was able to self-ingest the medication.

He took some time to think about his options and discuss it with our family. He received counseling from various professionals and loved ones, and talked about expectations with his doctor. It became clear to Doug that medical aid in dying aligned with his values. He would not let this terrible disease take away his autonomy. Instead, he would go out on his own terms, in the sunshine and warmth of his home.

That fall, each of his siblings (three sisters, including myself) and his 36-year-old son visited him individually and talked with him about his interest in using medical aid in dying. As he neared his 73rd birthday in December, Doug chose a date to ingest the medicine.

He and his spouse Shelley invited all of us and our spouses to celebrate Doug’s life with them. In that last week, we played and listened to music, told stories, and looked at old photographs. We laughed and we cried. We cooked and enjoyed some great meals. Those of us who were able took some long walks. It was beautiful.

When the day arrived, we all sat in a semicircle around Doug’s bed while the doctor carefully reviewed the process in detail. Doug ingested the medication. He quickly said he felt dizzy, then hot, then tired. He closed his eyes. It was quiet. He didn’t seem anxious; everything just slowed down. His tremors went away. Eventually he let out a really long, slow exhale, which the doctor declared was his last. From ingestion to death, it was less than 20 minutes.

Witnessing Doug’s death and bonding with him and our loved ones during that time showed me that the dying experience can bring peace, acceptance, and relief to both the dying individual and their family. That’s why I’m advocating for the Minnesota End-of-Life Options Act, currently under consideration by Minnesota’s legislators.

Everyone should have the option of medical aid in dying so we don’t have to fear terminal suffering, but can instead focus on what’s meaningful and celebrate a life well-lived.

Christina Ogata lives in Hugo. Inspired by her brother’s peaceful death in New Mexico, she is advocating for the option of medical aid in dying for terminally ill Minnesotans.