In Memory of Michael Saum, April 18, 1980 - Aug. 6, 2020

First Known Transgender Person to Publicly Advocate for Medical Aid-in-Dying Laws Nationwide Dies

Michael Saum is sitting looking up at the camera

Michael Saum always knew he was going to die from the massive tumor that invaded his brain.

But he never imagined dying alone.

Michael, 40, died August 6 at midnight at a rehab center in Southern California, where he lived for the last four years. In March, the facility was forced to shut their doors to protect their frail patients from coronavirus. Michael had been unresponsive for the last two days without eating and drinking.

“He would call me in tears,” said Julia Solis, his best friend and caretaker. “He could not understand why I could not go see him during his last days.”

Michael was the first known terminally ill, transgender person in the nation to publicly urge lawmakers to pass laws that allow mentally capable, terminally ill adults the option to request prescription medication they can decide to take to die peacefully if their suffering becomes intolerable.

A proud advocate for the LGBTQ community, Michael successfully urged California lawmakers to pass the End of Life Option Act in 2015. 

I met Michael in 2015, when we were trying to pass the state’s medical aid-in-dying law in California. He reached out to Compassion & Choices in hopes that his story of living with brain cancer would help convince legislators about the importance of passing the End of Life Option Act. 

Michael was only 20 years old when he first found out about his malignant brain tumor in 2001. Between chemotherapy and radiation, Michael obtained his bachelor's degree from California State Polytechnic, Pomona, and a master’s degree in sociology from California State University, Fullerton. His cancer went into remission for 16 months, but in 2014, doctors told Michael it had returned with a vengeance. 

One year later, his volunteer advocacy for Compassion & Choices to pass the End of Life Option Act began. 

Michael and Julia spent long hours in California writing letters to lawmakers, rallying outside legislative offices under the hot sun and visiting their state Assemblymember in West Covina to urge him to pass the state’s medical aid-in-dying law that took effect in 2016. 

He spoke to TV, print and radio journalists throughout California, despite the constant pain, 

pounding headaches and unstoppable nausea caused by the illness that was spreading 

throughout his body. His story appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily News, as an editorial in the Sacramento Bee and in several LGBTQ publications throughout the state.

Michael was a foodie. He loved his banana splits. And like me, he loved The Beatles. 

We followed each other on Facebook, where we posted songs from the cute Beatle: Paul. When he could no longer read, his dear friends Julia and Cat Rodriguez read Facebook posts aloud to him.

So I knew something was very wrong when Michael stopped “liking” the songs I posted for him. It meant Michael was in the hospital again, where I would go sing and play his favorite tune:  Yesterday. 

As months passed, Michael’s daily messages on Facebook went unanswered. So did greetings posted on his last birthday.

But he never stopped advocating for compassionate laws, something he hoped would be a part of his legacy.

“I wish I could write more letters to legislators around the country,” he said. “But my time on this earth is coming to a close soon.”

He specifically thanked California Senators Bill Monning, Lois Wolk and Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman for authoring the state’s medical aid-in-dying law.

“We all have a gift in life,” he said. “We all have a chance to do something amazing. I will go in peace knowing that I helped give people dying of a terminal illness the option to die peacefully.”

I last saw Michael in September, after a doctor at the rehab facility gave him a six-month prognosis. His words were scattered. He had difficulty collecting his thoughts. 

Yet he recorded on a cell phone what would be his last plea to urge state legislatures nationwide to pass medical aid-in-dying laws. View the video.

“I am dying within the next six months,” Michael says in the video. “I'm not scared to die.”

“I'm tired of the pain,” he said in the video. “I am ready to go.” 

I last spoke to Michael sometime in June. He said my colleague, Erika Bieranowski had just dropped off some personal hygiene items and left them in the office for him.  

Michael was lucid during that phone call that lasted over 30 minutes. 

We laughed. We cried. He spoke about his fear of dying alone. 

I changed the tone of the conversation, by recalling our days during the California campaign. 

I reminded him of his legacy:

“You are the first transgender to advocate for medical aid-in-dying laws in the United States,” I said. 

Michael spoke with pride as I told him, we will talk soon.

And just before I hung up, I sang to him that one Beatles song that connected both of us. 

Suddenly I'm not half the man I used to be

There's a shadow hanging over me

Oh, yesterday came suddenly ...

All of us at Compassion & Choices are forever thankful to Michael for being a champion for terminally ill LGBTQ Californians whose last wish in life is to die peacefully without unnecessary suffering. 

Rest in peace, Michael Dean Saum.