This is the first in a series of interviews with grassroots advocates who are participants in Death with Dignity National Center’s new State Leadership Incubator. Today, we’re speaking with Lisa Vigil Schattinger, MSN, RN, founder and executive director of Ohio End of Life Options. Lisa joined our Board of Directors in 2016.
Other stories in the series:
- “Personal Liberty and Choice: Ed Tiryakian on Advocating for Death with Dignity in North Carolina”
- “The Right Side of History: Cindy Merrill on Advocating for Death with Dignity in Texas”
- “Come Hell or High Water: Valerie Lovelace on Advocating for Death with Dignity in Maine”
Lisa Vigil Schattinger’s leadership journey began in Medford, Oregon, at the bedside of her stepfather, Dr. Jack Rowe. Suffering from Myelodysplastic syndrome with no chance of recovery, Jack made the decision in November 2014 to use the Oregon Death with Dignity Act to end his life before his pain and suffering became too much to endure.
“When Jack shared his thoughts and intentions, his absolute firm belief that this was his choice and his right to use this option, we understood,” Lisa says.
Lisa, who grew up in Oregon and worked in an internal medicine office during the campaigns to pass the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, had long been aware and supportive of the assisted dying movement. This knowledge, combined with her personal experience supporting her mother during her aunt’s prolonged battle, gave Lisa a unique perspective on a patient’s quality of life and death.
After witnessing Jack’s painless, peaceful, and dignified death, Lisa and her family realized that “we needed to share his experience to help people understand that a peaceful death can be achieved when someone knows they’re dying and is very proactive” about end-of-life planning.
Bringing the Dialogue About Dying to Ohio
Lisa returned to Ohio with a renewed passion for bringing greater end-of-life choice to people in states without Death with Dignity statutes. She was ready to join the dialogue about death and dying in her area. But she quickly found out that there was no dialogue.
“So few people had heard about assisted dying or even talked about death and dying, that it was a challenge to bring it to light here and start a conversation,” Lisa says.
So she got to work, researching the ins and outs of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act and writing an op-ed to her local newspaper, in which she shared her family’s story and her firm belief in giving all Americans a right to die with dignity.
The piece, published in December 2014, struck a chord. Hundreds of readers shared it on social media, and Lisa received many supportive comments from community members. Just as Lisa’s piece appeared, the story of Brittany Maynard, who used the Oregon law 10 days before Jack, had brought the issue of Death with Dignity into the mainstream. But it was still difficult for her to have face-to-face conversations with Ohioans about Death with Dignity.
The first meetings about crafting and passing the Oregon Death with Dignity Act took place in a church basement and behind closed doors. More than 20 years later, Lisa’s conversations with Death with Dignity supporters in Ohio were similarly enshrouded in secrecy.
“I was approached in so many ways: in back hallways, stairwells, bathrooms—all these places that were not public, for people to say, thank you, and here’s my story,” Lisa recalls. “They absolutely wanted to share stories when there was an outlet for it.”
An Organization Forms
She began to deepen connections with a small group of allies and aspiring activists, who joined her as she began creating a unified voice for a nascent Death with Dignity movement in Ohio. They launched their grassroots efforts in spring 2015 by meeting with state legislators to educate them on the issue; they broadened their reach through penning op-eds, giving media interviews, and leading presentations to organizations and community groups around the state.
One of Lisa’s main goals was to educate people about the hows and whys of the Oregon law. She wanted to create “a safe space for people to explore the details of the law, to ask, ‘how would this work for me moving forward?’”
Supporting Ohio End of Life Options
Through the State Leadership Incubator, we at the Death with Dignity National Center are working with Lisa and advocates in other states on messaging, grassroots organizing, political strategy, and more.
Lisa says the state leadership incubator has been empowering, enlightening, and encouraging. She has found connecting with and learning from her fellow advocates especially valuable.
“From the very beginning, what struck me is the power of coming together with and listening to like-minded people,” Lisa says. “Everybody has questions—we’re trying to figure out how best to do it in our own states, recognizing what’s needed overall, and how to pursue what you need outside your own skill set.”
Lisa is using the lessons learned in the incubator to grow Ohio End of Life Options strategically. Her first project: training aspiring activists across the state, giving them the tools she wished she’d had at the beginning of her efforts.
Opening up minds to other ways of thinking is a big responsibility. We’re not here to push buttons, we’re here to grow an informed group of supporters.
“I was able to look at all the available tools, like webinars, and talk with them about messaging,” she adds. “Having tools that allow me to say, ‘Don’t scramble for 100 hours, here are resources that you can use right away’” can transform motivated supporters into effective advocates.
Lisa says that her organization’s greatest opportunities are also its most significant challenges.
“The program gives us something to work toward, and helps us see the bigger picture,” she says. “Which is sometimes quite daunting! I’m trained as a nurse, I’m not a natural fundraiser. But as this program has helped us solidify who we are and where we want to go, I realize that fundraising is an integral part of working toward those goals. In allowing us to see the bigger picture and how to get there, I feel more comfortable asking for donations.”
Lisa also serves on Death with Dignity National Center’s Board of Directors, a position she calls “a tremendous honor” that has inspired her to strengthen her efforts in Ohio.
“It has been a significant growth opportunity for me personally,” Lisa says. “I’ve learned so much about the political process, and have gained comfort and confidence” advocating for an assisted dying law in the Buckeye State.
Above all, Lisa says, her work in Ohio mirrors the National Center’s efforts in states across the country. It comes down to building relationships one at a time, with a combination of knowledge, strategy, and empathy for terminally ill patients and their loved ones.
“It’s about engaging people in respectful, responsible conversation,” Lisa says. “Opening up minds to other ways of thinking is a big responsibility. We’re not here to push buttons, we’re here to grow an informed group of supporters.”