Storyteller Spotlight: Kira Philips

March 22, 2022

Without the option of medical aid in dying in Connecticut, Kira Philips’ mother, Clare Marie Philips, ended her life violently to escape her suffering from multiple myeloma. Kira is now dedicated to making this option available for others.

The way she had to do it is what devastates me. My mom didn’t deserve to have to go out that way.  What happened to her has made me question everything I’ve ever believed, especially the idea that things happen for a reason. I’m adopted, so of course I would think I ended up where I am today, in this position, for a reason. But how could this have happened for a reason, besides me sharing her story now and trying to make a difference in the world? That’s the only explanation I can come up with: She did what she did because she wanted to have her story told — and make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.

I can’t think of a way my mother could have been a better mom to me. She was very caring, kind and gentle. She put little handmade notes in my lunchbox every day when I was a kid. Picked me up from the bus stop when it was raining, drove me to however many hundreds of ballet classes I took. She was always a home for me.

Mom was also an artist. She was a pioneer in computer graphic design in the 1980s, and later, when she retired, she got into fine art, doing paintings, portraits, still lifes, working in oil, pastel, multimedia and collage. Her favorite genre to work in was also the most difficult: portraiture.

In 2014, my mom had a prescreening for multiple myeloma and found out she had a precursor for the disease. While she was asymptomatic, we went on living like we had before. But in September 2018, Mom experienced some really bad back pain and discovered that her condition had progressed to multiple myeloma.

Her initial prognosis was three to 13 months. She did one round of radiation and found it so loathsome that she decided to go directly into hospice. That was in October. For about five months, she was completely bedridden, incontinent and loopy from the morphine. In March 2019, she started feeling stronger and more cognitively present, and she transitioned out of hospice. She switched doctors, did some research into her treatment options and began a new oral steroidal treatment. She started doing really well.

We had about a year of remission. Then, in January 2021, her oncologist discovered that she hadn’t been responding to the medications that had originally put her in remission. By that spring, my mom had developed a golf-ball-sized protruding tumor of myeloma cells on her scalp. She had shrunk significantly in height, her posture deteriorating from 5’5” to 4’11”. She was hurting everywhere, every day. She had pain in her back, her hips, and radiating throughout her trunk and down her legs. She couldn’t stand up to paint anymore.

Mom had talked with my dad about the possibility of moving to Vermont in order to access the state’s medical aid-in-dying law. In addition to the relentless pain she was experiencing, she also knew what it was like to be on morphine. Before, when she was receiving hospice care, her pain meds had turned her into a shell of herself, disoriented, unaware of her surroundings and having memory problems. This was not something she wanted to go through again. But I don’t think she felt like moving to Vermont was a realistic option for her. She was physically quite fragile, and I’m not sure she thought she had enough time left to establish residency in a new state. Connecticut was her home; it was where she was born and raised, where she had three cats and a dog and people she knew and loved.

In addition to the weekly intravenous chemotherapy she was receiving, Mom’s oncologist was pushing for her to try a blood transfusion treatment, where they drain your blood, zap it with radiation, and then return your blood to your body. It would have required spending a month in the hospital and then living in or near Boston, where she was receiving treatment, for three months to be close to her doctor. Mom just didn’t want to do that. She was already in a frail state at that point. She had already gone through two years of this. As an alternative, she was going to try another medication via infusion.

On the morning of June 3, 2021, the day she was supposed to start that treatment, my mom shot herself in the head in the shed in our backyard.

My dad was the one who found her there. I was home, sleeping upstairs, when he came running to tell me what had happened. We were completely blindsided.

In the note my mom left, she wrote that she wished she could have moved to Vermont for six months to be able to get a prescription for a peaceful death. My mother — my vegetarian, Buddhist, gentle, sweet mom — felt she had no good option: either continue suffering or end her life alone, violently.

I didn’t know that medical aid in dying was an option anywhere in the U.S. before my mother’s death. But I quickly learned that all of this — her violent suicide, the shock of it, the abiding trauma for my dad — could have been avoided if medical aid in dying had been available to my mother in Connecticut. Yes, it would have been hard to be there with her when she chose to die. But the difference between a peaceful end, surrounded by family, and what we all endured would have been like night and day.

In the months since Mom died, I’ve been thinking more about how much she shaped who I am. Even though we weren’t blood related, I see how much I got from her, and now I’m trying to project that into the world. Advocating for the option of medical aid in dying has become my life’s mission. I don’t want any other family to have to go through what we went through. I believe terminally ill people like my mom deserve the option to free themselves from their suffering peacefully, surrounded by their loved ones, not alone on the concrete floor of a dark shed. I can’t just let my mother’s tragedy be for nothing.

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