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Dr. Morris from "How to Die in Oregon"

Dr. Katherine Morris
Dr. Katherine Morris

Dr. Katherine Morris was Cody Curtis' surgical oncologist. They were both featured in the groundbreaking documentary, How to Die in Oregon. Dr. Morris is currently an Assistant Professor in Surgical Oncology at University of New Mexico, with clinical and research interests in Upper GI (stomach, liver, pancreas, etc) cancers.

I'm not a person who likes getting her picture taken. So, how I ended up in a documentary discussing the most difficult and emotionally laden decision I've ever made in my professional career still occasionally puzzles me. Voting for Oregon's Death with Dignity law was a clear decision for me given the amount of respect I have for individual autonomy, and through my practice I'd learned how much people can suffer at the end of their lives. Even so, the decision to be a prescribing physician for a patient I was very attached to was incredibly difficult.

I had struggled through that decision process with the help of my family and friends when my patient introduced the idea of a documentary she was participating in about the process. She brought it up gently, saying, "Well...I'm being filmed and interviewed for a movie that is being made on the Death with Dignity law. The documentarian is a very nice young man—very respectful. He's from Oregon, and his first film made it into Sundance! I'm sure he would love to have you bat your eyelashes for the camera…" (This last being a bit of an inside joke between two feminists.)

"Wow…I don't know about that. I'm still reeling from this myself."

"No problem—whatever is good for you—I can keep you entirely anonymous if you like. Would you like to just chat with him on the phone or by email? I can give him your contact info if you're OK with that."<

"Interesting," my heart thought.

"Hell no!" My brain thought.

"OK," my mouth said.

I could've remained anonymous. No one would have ever known I was her prescribing doctor. The anonymity was attractive. The movie, however, was very important to my patient. She wanted the story to be told. I thought a considerable amount of time about participating and finally decided I could do a voice interview. We recorded for about two hours in May, when Cody was doing exceptionally well and I still had hopes she wouldn't need the medication. This little bit of denial allowed me to think more clinically about the subject—it was easier to show the CT and PET scans and discuss the disease process and her clinical course. It was like I was explaining it to a family member of a patient, except this family member had what looked like a 35 pound camera on his shoulder, using it for sound recording only.

The next step down the path was filming her office visits when she came in for drain checks and assured me she was feeling as well as possible. Cody was the focus of these, and it seemed so important to her. I liked the documentary maker, Peter, and it was somewhat natural. I generally forgot he was there given the intensity of our discussions, except for the time I told the tale of my first time hosting Thanksgiving with my Mom and the in-laws while troubleshooting her drain. After sharing somewhat pointed humor about myself, my husband, the references to f-bombs, overly salted gravy, and disagreements between family members, I suddenly remembered the camera and blurted out, "this part better not land in the film."

In the clinic appointments I was doing my job as a surgical oncologist—trying to help and support Cody and her family—so, it was much easier to be filmed. I still hadn't committed to an actual on camera interview about my feelings on the subject. They were—and quite frankly, often still are—raw. I was very conscious of how little I knew from the philosophic and rigorous ethics standpoint. I hadn't spent a lifetime focusing entirely on these issues like many people before me. I felt inadequate to talk about it, and I wasn't inclined to show as much of my underbelly as it would take to discuss this in front of strangers who'd see the film.

By the time December arrived, Cody went into rapid decline. She decided to take the medications, dying at home, with her family around her, the icy wind and a large digital camera outside her room. Her and her family were beautiful in their love for each other. I was present when she took the medication and honored to be a part of her life. When she had drifted off to sleep, I drove home and hugged my cat, finally able to really cry about it. That was a Monday.

The following Saturday night my husband and I were watching the public access station. We'd only just started a cable subscription when TV went digital because the TV didn't work without cable. Not wanting more excuses to sit on our backsides in front of the TV than we already had, we got the cheapest plan, leaving us with the major networks, PBS, three Spanish telenovela channels, and public access. Even with that meager selection, we were still sitting on our backsides in the living room. Channel flipping brought us to the Women's Hour show, wherein a local religious lady had a couches and mugs format talk show with important people in her community. That Saturday, it happened to be one of my former medical school professors. A devout Catholic, very much in the full Roman tradition, this professor had caused controversy during my medical school days because he wasn't willing to prescribe birth control.

He was discussing how sick our society was that it allowed a "very small group of doctors" to go around "making their living off prescribing lethal medications to vulnerable, suicidal patients." The comments went on, and seemed to me increasingly hostile and entirely divorced from the process I'd just gone through with my patient. Although I had tears streaming down my face, I was angry. Fire spittin' mad. My husband changed the channel, but I raged on. At that moment, I realized it was critical to tell my side of this story as well, even if it meant tearing up on camera, looking like Austen Powers in a wig.

Peter came over to our house a few days later, and we did my on camera interview, doing our best to not let the swirling cats make too much noise during the recording. I was a bit excited and moderately terrified when the movie came out and I learned HBO had picked it up. I worried about what my friends who disagreed with me on this subject would think. I worried about my patients, past, present, and future, whose religion so sustained them that I feared they wouldn't feel comfortable with me after viewing the film. I recalled all too well the period of time when members of our OB/Gyn department were having their names and home addresses listed on the internet as people who "needed to be crossed out." Mostly, however, I was scared of being misunderstood; terrified people would mistake my desire to honor a patient's decision with a disrespect for the force of life I spent so many hours of my life trying to support.

When I saw the rough cut of the film and heard Nancy Niedzielski's story for the first time, I knew I'd made the right decision. Her bravery was so huge and heroic compared to my fears that I took courage from it and became a little bit proud of not silencing myself—even if I couldn't be perfectly composed and eloquent about speaking my mind.

Since then, I've seen the film many times, generally through tears. Cody is so alive in the movie and I miss her. In addition to the sadness, however, is the growing knowledge of how eloquently she crafted her message, turning her part in the documentary into a kind of love letter to the planet and people she was leaving.

Comments

Posted by Judith Palumbo-Gates (not verified) on October 5, 2012 at 01:37 p.m.

I am incredibly grateful for the many who have worked and continue to work to make death with dignity a personal choice with legal sanction. It gives me great peace as I remember my mom's agony caring for a dear friend dying of cancer in the 50's. She screamed in pain begging God to release her. Addiction to morphine was an issue, so it was prescribed in limited amounts. Knowing there is a dignified, compassionate way to help loved ones pass should be an inalienable right. I have known people who diagnosed with terminal cancer all alone, went out and ended their lives rather than go through the indignity of steady decline without hope. Death is inevitabile, but death with dignity and compassion and time for goodbyes along with making a personal choice when the timing feels right - must become a right. I recommend How to Die in Oregon to everyone I know. Not available in our local library, it was subsequently ordered per my request. I encourage others to check it out at your local library and request access to this exceptional documentary if it is not yet in your Librarians are honed to serve the public! Thank you, Doctor Morris, for your courage and commitment to becoming one of many important voices supporting necessary, important change.

Posted by Don Miller (not verified) on October 5, 2012 at 03:02 p.m.

Thank you for sharing this and above all else thanks for being there for Cody...I can only wish for similar support here in Vancouver when my time comes!

Posted by Jon Starlight (not verified) on October 5, 2012 at 11:05 p.m.

I watched the movie several times and I'm very proud of your decision to do the interview. That, and being her prescribing doctor, takes guts. I've recently graduated from nursing school and I hope to be a doctor one day. It's my sincere hope that medicine, in general, will continue it's slow but forward progress in the direction of patient focused pain care. I originally had the very general idea that if we can put our pets (that we love) "down" because they are suffering why is it that we can't do more for our human loved ones? I know that sounds crass but it was the original question that bothered me and this topic is one I am following very closely. Again, thanks for your bravery.

Posted by Diane Struble (not verified) on October 7, 2012 at 01:33 a.m.

Thank you.

Posted by Andrew Taylor (not verified) on October 12, 2012 at 01:35 p.m.

Thank you, Katherine, for being a vital part of "How to die in Oregon", and of Cody's care, I was present at a showing of the film, soon after my wife died, that Nancy Nancy Niedzielski hosted. It was very moving, very informative and something I want to watch again, now that it's a year since Meg's death. I've just reserved one of Seattle Public Library's 12 copies: they're typically all checked out!

Posted by David A. Naar (not verified) on November 1, 2012 at 07:35 a.m.

Thanks much for your article Katherine. I am 81 years old and at the crossroad of Death with Dignity. I have spinal arthritis , have been operated on twice with limited success and a morphine pump in my stomach to control pain as well as a daily dose of 90 mg. of Oxycontin. The morphine pump was recently turned up but unfortunately upon turning it up I went mildly insane and had it turned down the next day. So that leaves me in a bind as to what to do next? I would feel a lot better knowing that suicide is an option that I can take when the pain reaches unbearable levels.

Posted by Doris Fields, PhD (not verified) on January 20, 2013 at 02:57 p.m.

I am fortunate to teach a course, Health Issues of Death and Dying, at the University of New Mexico. I strive to help my students understand the myriad facets of death and of dying. Sometimes I offer students extra credit to take advantage of anything that helps broaden their knowledge and their understanding. Thus, when the documentary, “How to Die in Oregon,” was shown on campus during Fall Semester, 2012, I, along with approximately 15 students from my class attended. Beforehand, some students were clear about their own choice of dying with dignity, others were interested in knowing more, and still others came only because of the extra credit. All left the session profoundly moved by the exploration of issues and by the individual stories highlighted in the film. Subsequently, when we returned to our next class session, and other sessions later, these students were eager to share their experiences with their student colleagues. At the end of the semester, when discussing their most important experiences in the course, overall, several students focused on the session we attended on “How we Die in Oregon.” I believe this is a must-see documentary for anyone who is interested in knowing more about dying with dignity. I am grateful to Dr. Morris and all who participated in the process of creating this important documentary.
Doris Fields, PhD

Posted by Dacia (not verified) on January 23, 2013 at 05:40 p.m.

A little comment from the Netherlands. I just watched the documentary How to die in Oregon. I could just feel the love and admiration Katherine had for Cody. I really hope that every state in America will get a law like this, like we have in the Netherlands too. No one should die alone or in pain and agony. Dignity is the keyword. I wish you Katherine all the best, and also to everybody who reads this. With love...

Posted by Shakira McKenna (not verified) on March 20, 2013 at 06:33 p.m.

I think what you're doing is noble. I have watched How to Die in Oregon several times. I forced my husband to watch it and I've shilled it on my Facebook page. It's the most touching and poignant story I've ever seen in documented on film. I loved Cody immediately, as I suspect most people did. I loved her honesty and absolute raw emotion that she shared. I was in awe of the bravery, not only from Cody's family and from Cody, herself, but from each person who stood up for their beliefs. I want to see more states adopt a Dying With Dignity law. As human beings, there are many things out of our control. If a person is dying, making the decision to end his/her suffering should not be mandated by our government nor any religious affiliation. It's amazing to me, with all the horrible things happening in our world today, that govt. officials would actually waste valuable time trying to prevent a person from exercising their free will. You're a HERO in my book, Katherine. We need more physicians like you......

Posted by Dave Gellis (not verified) on April 2, 2013 at 03:00 a.m.

Outstanding job, Dr. Morris. Your service to Ms. Curtis, both as a doctor and a friend were immeasurable.

Posted by Greg Snider (not verified) on June 8, 2013 at 10:27 a.m.

Hi Dr. Kate - I just came across your blog article for the first time this morning!
It is beautifully written, honest and enlightening. It was great to hear the backstory of your involvement in the film. It's been over 2 years now since the film first premiered and it shows no sign of slowing down. It was such an honor to be involved with the film and the people who participated in it.
Hope all is well in NM. We love it down there - so much so that we subscribe to New Mexico magazine.

Posted by Lori Preston (not verified) on June 11, 2013 at 01:12 p.m.

Thank you for your decision to allow yourself to be filmed. I'm sure it was difficult. However, by showing how health care decisions are best made by patients with support from their providers - without judgement from others - you've done all who watch a great service. The compassion you showed this family, along with the amazing and loving portrayal of Cody and her family speaks volumes about the need to give every one who is suffering from a terminal illness this choice.

Posted by Sandra Seamster (not verified) on June 12, 2013 at 02:14 p.m.

Thank you for being the person you are and thank you for being the doctor you are. I just watched the movie and my mind kept going back to my mom. In 1985, she died of pancreatic cancer which traveled to her liver. The pain was horrendous. She begged for someone to help her in the end, the doctors, the nurses, my dad, us kids..... She begged. When this law came out for us to vote on..... Everyone in my family voted for it. I had to chuckle some when I overheard the doctors saying they had her morphine drip wide open, had to watch so she didn't get addicted. Yeah right. Thank you again .........

Posted by Minz (not verified) on June 13, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.

Thankyou. As a medical student, you sharing your story helps me see the real people behind our pointy ethical debates, and really, the people are the reason that we're all doing what we're doing (or aspiring to do!). Your compassion is inspiring.

Posted by Christine (not verified) on June 27, 2013 at 09:40 p.m.

Dr. Morris, I just wanted to let you know that I am honored and grateful the world has Doctors like you. I've watched the documentary numerous times and immediately felt connected to Cody. Perhaps she reminds me of my mother in law; graceful, soft spoken, altruistic and timelessly beautiful. As are you. Her story sticks with me to this day. I am currently in nursing school and finishing an essay on why death with dignity should be legalized nationally.
I can only hope that I have as compassionate doctor as you when it's my time. I applaud your braveness, your courage and your grace under fire, I know it wasn't easy. Thank you for setting an amazing example.

Posted by Shari (not verified) on September 7, 2013 at 09:49 a.m.

Thank you! I just watched this documentary the other day & it was just beautiful. I was in tears for most of it. I got very attached to you and Cody.. both caring, beautiful souls.
Just wanted to let you know that if i was in the same situation as Cody was, i would hope to be lucky enough to have such an amazing Doctor.

Posted by Mary (not verified) on January 21, 2014 at 03:11 p.m.

I have to admit I was "on the fence" before watching the documentary -- mostly because of the years of religious indoctrination that I had grown up with. In addition, I was concerned that these practices were targeting mainly the elderly. This documentary presented such a well-rounded view of individuals from all corners. I really appreciated your medical perspective and the sensitive relationship you had with your patient and the end of her life. Cody died remarkably. You provided remarkable care to Cody. This documentary really challenged me on so many levels to rethink my views on decision making in dying. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I think it is important that we continue to protect and provide care for those who do not choose this path. However, we should also continue to support those who wish to die humanely. I feel so altered by this documentary... in a good way and in a way that doesn't happen very often.

Posted by Brenda Bryant (not verified) on March 24, 2014 at 10:38 a.m.

My first time watching the film was in December 2013, and it was an Awesome experienced, Christmas dinner was at my home in 2013, and after dinner with my family, me and my family watched the movie together. And it sparked up a Pleasurable debate about "The Right to Die With Dignity Law in Oregon": It was an Incredible Christmas evening discussing the Cody Curtis Story, and Dr. Katherine your input was very Honorable and Necessary for that event. I admirer both you and Cody Curtis decisions. I am Blessed to say me or my family member has not been diagnois with no terminal illness, but "I Thank You" for bringing awareness on Screen, and "I Thank You" for giving my family a "Pleasant but Challenging Topic to discuss on Christmas Day 2013. I been watching the film since. You are an Awsome Doctor, to have been there 100% for your Patient, that's Great! Cody Curtis and her Family touched my Heart in so many different and Incredible ways. I wish Cody Curtis family the best! and Dr K Morris to support your patient to the end, You are an Oustanding Doctor, and a Wonderful Human Being, Thank You, Again

Posted by Nicole (not verified) on May 7, 2014 at 07:51 p.m.

I just watched How to Die in Oregon a few days ago and cried my eyes out but want to watch it again. I think that what you did for Cody was one of the most beautiful and caring things someone could do. I hope that other states adopt death with dignity so no one has to suffer if they don't want to. I saw a family friend die and suffer from AIDS in 1996 and it was unbearable to see. I wish he would have been able to die with dignity and without pain. God bless you and your beautiful soul. We need more physicians like you.

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