Remembering Dr. Omega Silva
An ardent early supporter and member of Compassion & Choices’ African American Leadership Council, Dr. Silva was instrumental in our campaign to pass D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act.
by Sonja Aliesch
May 20, 2020
Our movement lost a beloved ally last month with the death of Omega Silva, M.D. A retired Washington, D.C., physician who lived with three cancer diagnoses, she taught and practiced medicine for over 50 years in and around the District. She also served as the first female president of the Howard University Medical Alumni Association and was the former president of the American Medical Women’s Association, which through her leadership endorsed medical aid in dying back in 2007 — the first supportive policy from a national medical association. A highly respected and effective spokesperson for Compassion & Choices’ campaign to pass D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act and the New York Medical Aid in Dying Act, Dr. Silva was a supporter of medical aid in dying to the very end. In fact, she used this end-of-life care option to end her suffering.
“In contrast to many other doctors, I never felt a physician’s only goal is to keep people alive no matter what. I think you need to look at the quality of life they have and what they think life is. Maybe life isn’t being on a respirator or having an NG [nasogastric] tube just to stay here a few more days,” she explained in a 2018 interview. “It was early on in my career that I came to grips with death, but a lot of physicians would rather not talk about death at all. I had to confront death early in my family too: My uncle got shot in his laundromat, and then his wife died shortly after that, and even their son died — he got cancer. What in the world is a 23-year-old doing with kidney cancer that kills him within a month or two? It happens though.”
Dr. Silva provided written and verbal testimony to lawmakers, recorded public service announcements for Compassion & Choices to educate D.C. residents about end-of-life care options, and participated in the National Academy of Sciences’ workshops on medical aid in dying. But she also had numerous other interests and talents. Once an aspiring fashion designer, she made all her own clothes from the time she was in junior high until she was a second-year resident. And she and her husband, both fond of trains, belonged to the National Railway Historical Society and rode the rails across the United States and Canada.
“Dr. Silva’s tenacity to advocate for medical aid in dying, while she was dying and enduring debilitating weekly chemo treatments for months on end, was inspiring,” said D.C. campaign director Donna Smith. “We are forever indebted to her for helping us pass the D.C. Death with Dignity Act and defending it from congressional opponents’ repeated attempts to repeal it, but more importantly for the role model she was to all of us. She was a brilliant, outspoken and courageous person. She will be missed.”