Debora Burnett

Debora Burnett's father, Thomas Erwin Burnett, used medical aid in dying. His family supported his wish of ending his suffering with intention, and Tom passed away gently on December 27, 2022.
Debby Burnett hiking with her father Thomas Burnett

“When my father discovered Colorado’s End-of-Life Options Act, I knew our prayers were answered. Dad could die with dignity and choice.”

Debora shared her story in January of 2024.

My dearest, darlingest dad was my biggest champion. For every life change or challenge, he was there, standing quietly in the wings, whispering (well, sometimes yelling because I was being stubborn) gems of wisdom and encouragement. And he always began and ended every adventure of mine with a hearty laugh and, “Ain’t life grand, Debora?”

He spent his last 43 years of life sober and bestowing the lessons he had learned from Alcoholics Anonymous and the work he had invested into becoming spiritually fit. He’d often direct me to specific pages from the Big Book and tell me to call him afterward to discuss. At one point, his lectures came so frequently and so predictably that I started numbering them. That was just his thing, but they were always helpful.

Beyond his own spiritual strength, he was an extremely dedicated father. When I graduated from Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine, along the road trip from Colorado, he, my stepmom and stepsisters fell ill from food poisoning. Nonetheless, he knew what a big deal it was for me to have him there, so he kept on. Even in his terribly uncomfortable and ghastly pale state, there he was in the audience when I searched for him as I received my diploma.

For a while he lived out in the middle of nowhere, in a home that was “off the grid.” He was adventurous, self-sufficient and loved being surrounded by quiet nature. He built the powerhouse that provided electricity to his home, and he drove a backhoe to plow me out every time I got stuck on the little two-track road through the sagebrush when I came to visit.

Dad was various things through the years: a ski instructor, a civil water engineer, a mountain climber, a bicycle rider, and he even learned how to fly and built his own airplane. He was full of life and always doing something.

But he was always just my dad. My champion, my supporter. He was never a big man, but he seemed invincible. And then cardiac disease reared its head. A quintuplet bypass in 2012 made him frail-appearing. But he persisted with his indomitable spirit.

He had always talked about the men in his family not living past 70. Dad was very aware of his own mortality, and when he turned 75, he insisted that we all gather for his funeral. He was determined to have all of us in the same place, and he thought the only time that happened for people was after they’d died — at their funeral.

We all went along with him, because it was hard not to. That was just the way it was with Dad. You just seemed to go along. Like the time he and I set out for a short bike ride from our townhouse in Frisco up the bike path to Copper Mountain, about six miles. When we got to Copper, he said, “Hey, let’s go a little farther.” I looked up the path and said, “It goes up Vail Pass, are you crazy?” He convinced me “just a little farther.” Stopping to take a break, a little farther, he said, “Come on, a little bit more.” And suddenly we were at the top of Vail Pass — about 12 miles. That was dad … always just a little bit farther.

So, we had a funeral for him at 75. His partner, Linda, hired a bagpiper who came out performing Amazing Grace. A joke in our family was that my dad collected daughters — he had three biological daughters, then two stepdaughters from his second marriage, and another two added in from his partner Linda. Every one of us shared a story about Dad, and there was singing and crying and laughing. It was glorious. And sad. And fun.

Just a year later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD). He met his diagnosis with the joie de vivre he met everything with. I never once heard him utter anything like “it’s not fair” or “poor me.”  He became introspective and focused on learning mindfulness. He began meditating with the help of Linda. She taught him mindfulness. He attacked it as he did everything in his life, and he set out to learn how to live a life of intention.

He became determined to show us all how to not only live with intention, but to die with intention. He had helped me when I had to euthanize my dear Golden Retriever, Sundance. I showed him how to push in the drugs after I had placed the IV so that I could cradle her face in my hands and send her on her way. As a veterinarian, I am usually the one pushing the drugs and allowing the owners the last goodbye. But I didn’t have to be clinical at that moment; I could focus on my grief because he was willing to help me.

Especially because Dad had lived such a physically active and self-sufficient lifestyle, his decline in health took so much from him. Parkinson’s took Dad’s physicality so that mountain climbing and bike riding were off the table. He adapted to using a walker, then a scooter. But as PD affected his eyesight, it was further devastating. He had an engineer’s mind and voraciously read about many subjects, but now his disease was robbing him of all the things that made him.

Dad had always talked about Native Americans who wandered out into the sagebrush to die alone. I knew that he never wanted to be dependent on others and that if there was a way for him to find some sagebrush, he would do it. Then he and Linda discovered Colorado’s End-of-Life Options Act, and I knew our prayers were answered. Dad could die with dignity and choice.

Dad had already been working with a palliative care doctor for several months. Dissimilar from other experiences, Dad loved his palliative care doctor. He felt heard and respected. And, as things got worse and he enrolled in hospice at the end of October, Dad asked about getting an aid-in-dying prescription, and his medical team seamlessly supported his wish. By mid-November, he had his aid-in-dying prescription. It was a relief, for Dad and for us, as we saw the peace of mind it provided him.

He had seen others suffer from PD and knew what the end could look like. As much as he wanted to avoid his own suffering, he also wanted to shield us from the trauma he had seen in caring for loved ones near the end.

With that realization and acceptance, he made a plan. He asked a few of us to be designated with certain tasks to carry out, and he also set a date … but it was several months into the future. He had assumed enrolling in hospice meant that he had six months, and I think we all wanted to believe this too.

But life intervened, and the plans he’d made were suddenly futile. The Parkinson’s was worsening, and his heart disease was leaving his body exhausted. My dearest, darlingest dad was marking time by the next medication. My heart broke when I saw his little yellow pad with the times of each medication and when he could take the next one.

On Christmas Eve I got a call while I was waiting to board a flight home from San Francisco. We had gone ahead and taken the trip because Dad had seemed OK. I texted him photos of where he and I had been before. And I shared my morning walk when I had been so sad thinking of him and looked up, and there ahead of me on a random block was the Alcoholics Anonymous headquarters. I sent him a photo of the sign. He wrote back: “Ain’t life grand, Debora?” I went in and couldn’t talk, I just cried. They were lovely people who gave me a hug.

I spent Christmas morning talking to Dad and asking if I should come now. He told me to rest easy — but that he had decided that Wednesday, December 28 would be the day. And I should come down maybe the next day.

When I got to him on Tuesday, his hands were trembling and his voice was shaky, and I could see the effort for him to consciously attempt to swallow the saliva that was constantly building up in his mouth from the Parkinson’s. He was so adamant about not wanting to drool. He held my hands as I sat on the floor in front of him in the chair, and he said to me, “Why not today, Debora?” And I could not say no. None of us could.

The rest of that afternoon is both a blur and crystal clear in my mind. It was peaceful. It was sad. It was beautiful. And quiet. And almost all went according to my dearest dad’s plans. Linda, his partner; Marcy Jo, my stepsister; and I meditated with dad. Then he started his playlist that he had put together, a funeral playlist, and got up from his chair and gave each of us a hug. Then he emptied his pockets and climbed into the bed.

Marcy fixed the drink, and we gave it to him. He drank it all down. I gave him some raspberry sorbet to take away the burn. I told him as I kissed him for the last time that he was the bravest person I have ever known. Then he closed his eyes. And died. Peacefully. With dignity. With intention.

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