Dr. Morris from “How to Die in Oregon”

Dr. Morris care of NW Surgical Oncology
Dr. Morris care of NW Surgical Oncology

Dr. Katherine Morris was Cody Curtis’ surgical oncologist. They were both featured in the groundbreaking documentary, How to Die in Oregon. Dr. Morris is currently an Assistant Professor in Surgical Oncology at University of New Mexico, with clinical and research interests in Upper GI (stomach, liver, pancreas, etc) cancers.

I’m not a person who likes getting her picture taken. So, how I ended up in a documentary discussing the most difficult and emotionally laden decision I’ve ever made in my professional career still occasionally puzzles me. Voting for Oregon’s Death with Dignity law was a clear decision for me given the amount of respect I have for individual autonomy, and through my practice I’d learned how much people can suffer at the end of their lives. Even so, the decision to be a prescribing physician for a patient I was very attached to was incredibly difficult.

I had struggled through that decision process with the help of my family and friends when my patient introduced the idea of a documentary she was participating in about the process. She brought it up gently, saying, “Well…I’m being filmed and interviewed for a movie that is being made on the Death with Dignity law. The documentarian is a very nice young man—very respectful. He’s from Oregon, and his first film made it into Sundance! I’m sure he would love to have you bat your eyelashes for the camera…” (This last being a bit of an inside joke between two feminists.)

“Wow…I don’t know about that. I’m still reeling from this myself.”

“No problem—whatever is good for you—I can keep you entirely anonymous if you like. Would you like to just chat with him on the phone or by email? I can give him your contact info if you’re OK with that.”

“Interesting,” my heart thought.

“Hell no!” My brain thought.

“OK,” my mouth said.

I could’ve remained anonymous. No one would have ever known I was her prescribing doctor. The anonymity was attractive. The movie, however, was very important to my patient. She wanted the story to be told. I thought a considerable amount of time about participating and finally decided I could do a voice interview. We recorded for about two hours in May, when Cody was doing exceptionally well and I still had hopes she wouldn’t need the medication. This little bit of denial allowed me to think more clinically about the subject—it was easier to show the CT and PET scans and discuss the disease process and her clinical course. It was like I was explaining it to a family member of a patient, except this family member had what looked like a 35 pound camera on his shoulder, using it for sound recording only.

The next step down the path was filming her office visits when she came in for drain checks and assured me she was feeling as well as possible. Cody was the focus of these, and it seemed so important to her. I liked the documentary maker, Peter, and it was somewhat natural. I generally forgot he was there given the intensity of our discussions, except for the time I told the tale of my first time hosting Thanksgiving with my Mom and the in-laws while troubleshooting her drain. After sharing somewhat pointed humor about myself, my husband, the references to f-bombs, overly salted gravy, and disagreements between family members, I suddenly remembered the camera and blurted out, “this part better not land in the film.”

In the clinic appointments I was doing my job as a surgical oncologist—trying to help and support Cody and her family—so, it was much easier to be filmed. I still hadn’t committed to an actual on camera interview about my feelings on the subject. They were—and quite frankly, often still are—raw. I was very conscious of how little I knew from the philosophic and rigorous ethics standpoint. I hadn’t spent a lifetime focusing entirely on these issues like many people before me. I felt inadequate to talk about it, and I wasn’t inclined to show as much of my underbelly as it would take to discuss this in front of strangers who’d see the film.

By the time December arrived, Cody went into rapid decline. She decided to take the medications, dying at home, with her family around her, the icy wind and a large digital camera outside her room. Her and her family were beautiful in their love for each other. I was present when she took the medication and honored to be a part of her life. When she had drifted off to sleep, I drove home and hugged my cat, finally able to really cry about it. That was a Monday.

The following Saturday night my husband and I were watching the public access station. We’d only just started a cable subscription when TV went digital because the TV didn’t work without cable. Not wanting more excuses to sit on our backsides in front of the TV than we already had, we got the cheapest plan, leaving us with the major networks, PBS, three Spanish telenovela channels, and public access. Even with that meager selection, we were still sitting on our backsides in the living room. Channel flipping brought us to the Women’s Hour show, wherein a local religious lady had a couches and mugs format talk show with important people in her community. That Saturday, it happened to be one of my former medical school professors. A devout Catholic, very much in the full Roman tradition, this professor had caused controversy during my medical school days because he wasn’t willing to prescribe birth control.

He was discussing how sick our society was that it allowed a “very small group of doctors” to go around “making their living off prescribing lethal medications to vulnerable, suicidal patients.” The comments went on, and seemed to me increasingly hostile and entirely divorced from the process I’d just gone through with my patient. Although I had tears streaming down my face, I was angry. Fire spittin’ mad. My husband changed the channel, but I raged on. At that moment, I realized it was critical to tell my side of this story as well, even if it meant tearing up on camera, looking like Austen Powers in a wig.

Peter came over to our house a few days later, and we did my on camera interview, doing our best to not let the swirling cats make too much noise during the recording. I was a bit excited and moderately terrified when the movie came out and I learned HBO had picked it up. I worried about what my friends who disagreed with me on this subject would think. I worried about my patients, past, present, and future, whose religion so sustained them that I feared they wouldn’t feel comfortable with me after viewing the film. I recalled all too well the period of time when members of our OB/Gyn department were having their names and home addresses listed on the internet as people who “needed to be crossed out.” Mostly, however, I was scared of being misunderstood; terrified people would mistake my desire to honor a patient’s decision with a disrespect for the force of life I spent so many hours of my life trying to support.

When I saw the rough cut of the film and heard Nancy Niedzielski’s story for the first time, I knew I’d made the right decision. Her bravery was so huge and heroic compared to my fears that I took courage from it and became a little bit proud of not silencing myself—even if I couldn’t be perfectly composed and eloquent about speaking my mind.

Since then, I’ve seen the film many times, generally through tears. Cody is so alive in the movie and I miss her. In addition to the sadness, however, is the growing knowledge of how eloquently she crafted her message, turning her part in the documentary into a kind of love letter to the planet and people she was leaving.

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