"Dave was neither afraid nor angry about death. The only thing that angered him was the mammoth disappointment that his home state would not grant him the opportunity to exercise agency over the last great act of his life."
If Deborah Howland-Murray’s husband had had the option of aid in dying as he wanted, he could have died peacefully in his beloved home.
Deborah Howland-Murray’s husband, David A. Murray, wanted the option of medical aid in dying in Connecticut to end his suffering from stage 4 kidney cancer and die peacefully and comfortably at home. Instead, he died away from home and in pain.
Deborah shared her story in October of 2022.
My husband, David Murray, called his cancer “a gift.” It was the jolt of clarity that awakened workaholic Dave to what was truly important to him, and this brought our family closer than ever. The five months he fought the disease were rich with companionship, joy and laughter.
Dave’s illness was an exercise in rediscovered intimacy. His death? An exercise in needless suffering.
Dave was neither afraid nor angry about death. The only thing that angered him was the mammoth disappointment that his home state would not afford him the opportunity to exercise agency over the last great act of his life. He wanted to die in peace and dignity, without pain, at home, at a time of his choosing. None of that happened.
I knew Dave peripherally when I was a new divorcee with two little girls. Several years later, Dave was also divorced and living with his two small daughters. A mutual friend invited us over for dinner, thinking we would have a lot to talk about since we were each raising two young girls on our own. David was funny, kind and a great conversationalist. He loved his girls, good films, good wine and talking politics. He was very nonjudgmental and marched to the beat of his own drum. Within a year of our friendship, I realized that whenever anything happened in my life, I immediately wanted to talk to David about it. I still felt the same way thirty-five years later when he died.
An award-winning commercial interior designer, in the last decade of his life Dave shifted his professional focus toward a new venture: designing and patenting desks that allowed collaborative work around the computer. Although he won many awards for this design, he struggled to make it pay off. His efforts to get the business off the ground began to consume his life.
He started feeling very tired. While he was trying to find the cause, his right arm began to hurt. Dave thought it was an old rotator cuff injury. We went to our orthopedist’s office; they X-rayed his arm and informed him that the issue was not in his shoulder. Cancer had caused a break all the way through his humerus.
Dave was diagnosed with metastatic renal cell carcinoma — stage 4 kidney cancer.
As if an emergency brake had been pulled on our lives, cancer brought the wheels of normalcy skidding to a halt. Dave had become intensely focused on making his business work. Now, suddenly, he realized that he was missing the opportunity to give his large family what we really wanted — more time with him. Whatever time he had left, he decided to live it well with us.
He began every treatment he could, including radiation and several different chemotherapies, to gain more time with our family.
In late October 2017, David developed such severe lung dysfunction that he was admitted to the ICU at Yale New Haven Hospital. His pulse oxygen level was 79, critically below the healthy 98-100 range. His lungs had filled with fluid. It was clear he couldn’t tolerate the treatments.
As Dave progressively got worse, I was told to call the family to say goodbye to him. In a wheezy whisper he told each child, child-in-law and grandchild what he loved about them and dreamed for them — the kind of goodbyes that he had envisioned should he be able to die on his own terms.
Afterward, we spoke with the honest and compassionate ICU attending physician about Dave’s wishes for life-saving measures. He told us Dave’s body could not hold out under such stress for much longer. Did Dave want to be put on a ventilator? If he did, it was very likely that his lungs would not work to breathe on their own again. Dave declined.
Thanks to a massive, risky dose of steroids and a strong heart, Dave did not die that day. He never had wanted to die. He had just wanted the option of putting an end to the disease and the suffering it put him through. Still, he remained positive, continuing the treatments when he was strong enough. But inevitably he ended up back in the hospital for a week or so. He was totally valiant throughout the entire journey.
One night, we were lying in bed talking when Dave commented that he wished he could share his love for me and the kids in a more public way. An idea struck me: What if we had the big wedding we had forgone 34 years earlier? We spent a lot of Dave’s final months planning the wedding, which was such a positive experience for us both. I bought a gown, had Dave’s tux cleaned, and on December 9, 2017, we celebrated over three decades of marriage with a beautiful ceremony.
Dave was admitted to the hospital for the last time on Christmas Eve. On New Year’s Eve, three weeks after our “wedding,” Dave’s oncologist told me there was nothing more they could do for him.
The next 10 days were incredibly difficult. Initially, we had hospice care in our wonderful antique home that we had lived in for more than 30 years. We raised all five kids there. David adored that house — we all did — and was very proud of it. He wanted to die surrounded by the memories and symbols of our life together, but he got to the point of such extreme pain that I didn’t have enough pain medication to help him.
I told Dave, “The only thing I can do is get you to the hospice center for a few days so they can put in a morphine pump.” He said, “Make the call.”
He never got out of there.
From his diagnosis to his death was five months, and from the end of treatment to his death was 10 days. There was no time, or money, for us to move elsewhere in order to access the option Dave so desperately wanted. He was adamant that if you’re terminally ill and there’s no hope, you should be able to choose the time of your death. He just did not understand how the government had any right to decide this for him.
Instead, Dave died away from home on January 15, 2018. His cancer dictated his final moments. If he had the option of aid in dying in Connecticut as he wanted, it would have saved him the pain he was in at the end. He could have died a dignified death in his beloved home, his last wish fulfilled.
We’re all going to die, even if we don’t like to admit it. If I end up in Dave’s position, I’d like to be able to make that choice. I don’t want my children to have to go through that ever again. I couldn’t make it happen for Dave, but in his memory, I’m doing all I can to make it happen for everyone else.