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San Diego Writer Shares Terminally Ill Sister's 'Rebirth Party'

Niels Alpert
Betsy Davis, center, greets friends during her "Rebirth" party in Ojai on July 24. Davis was diagnosed with ALS. Her sister, writer Kelly Davis, looks on at right.

San Diego Writer Shares Terminally Ill Sister's 'Rebirth Party'
San Diego Writer Shares Terminally Ill Sister's 'Rebirth Party' GUEST: Kelly Davis, freelance journalist

we have had reporter Kelly Davis on midday edition often to talk about her stories about criminal justice and prisons. Today she is here to report on a personal story. Last month her sister Betsy used California's new aid in dying law to enter life. Last week Kelly wrote about that experience in Voice of San Diego. The story has been picked up by news outlets around the world. Kelly Davis, welcome to the show. Can you read to us from the letter your sister sent out earlier this summer? Yes. This is a letter she sent out to the folks she had invited over for her rebirth. She said first you are all very brave for sending me off of my journey. Thank you so much for traveling the physical and emotional distance for me. The circumstances are unlike any party you have attended before requiring emotional stamina. I strongly encourage you all to connect with everyone at the party. This will benefit you and me. There are no worlds. Wear what you want and speak your mind. Seeing, pray, but do not cry in front of me. Okay. OneWorld. It is important for me that our last interactions are joyful and light. If you need to cry, there will be a designated area or just find the corner. Can you tell us about your sister Betsy and the way she coped with such a devastating disease? That he was an artist. Kind of a type a personality but out going and detail oriented. She lived her life the way she wanted to live her life. And ALS, of course it was a devastating -- devastating diagnosis. You just slowly lose the ability to move, speak, eating becomes difficult. She handled it all with such bravery and did as much as she could for as long as she could. Even when she was pretty much confined to bed, she was still able to find joy in life. She lived very in the moment. She was able to laugh hysterically at a silly TV show or send me a funny text. We were always texting about cats and politics. She never lost her sense of humor. When did you know she decided to enter life? About a year ago. With AL -- with ALS there are plateaus. She experienced a decline and saw how her future was going to unfold. She started talking about options. As I write in the piece for the Voice of San Diego she sent me an email saying do you know anyone who knows about big coin? For a second I thought it was an art project because she always had crazy ideas and then I realized you want this to buy drugs or medication to enter life and she said yes. This was after eight in dying bill had not made it out of the state assembly committee. And so California had no aid in dying laws at the time. Shortly after she asked me about big coin the law came back in a special session of the legislature and was passed and took effect on June 9. One of the purposes of your article was to discover if California's new end-of-life options I was working the way it should. What did you find out? The concern was there would be a slippery slope that people who were not terminal would try to use this law or that a family member if there was a chronically ill family member who was becoming a burden, they might try to take advantage of the law. There are a lot of concerns that it would be used for reasons other than what it was intended for. And going through the process with Betsy, all of the paperwork and a verifications, all of the request she had to make for this medication and affirm that this was her choice and that it was voluntary, it affirm for me that this law was very carefully written to make sure those safeguards are in place. And that it is used properly. I and many Sandy Aikins read your piece in Voice of San Diego. This story has been picked up by outlets around the world. One headline goes like this, terminally ill woman holds today party for her 30 closest friends and family and kills herself at the end. What was your reaction to other people's coverage? That was an AP story. I appreciated the story and thought the reporter was very careful and thoughtful on how she wrote it but she cannot control how other news outlets, with headlines they put on it. I was devastated when I saw the daily Mail and other outlet called it a suicide party. It deeply upset me and deeply upset Betsy's friends. What I have found is so many people read that story and I got emails from the UK and from all over the world. They were able to look past the headline and read the story. Quickly appoint I've tried to make two other reporters I've spoken to, aid in dying is not suicide. It does not say suicide on Betsy's death certificate. It lays out that this is not a suicide. The cause of death will be listed as whatever the person's terminal illness was. Where you with your sister at the end? I was. Even though we had a group of her friends there to celebrate, the weekend with her, when she took the medicine, the medication, we knew it could be traumatic for some folks and it could make her nervous because she did have difficulty swallowing. In the end it was me and one of her caregivers Heather, her massage therapist who help the us prop Betsy up and lay her back as she needed when she was taking the medication. Betsy's doctor was also there. She wasn't required to be but Betsy was her first patient to do this so she wanted to observe the process and see how it went. It was just the four of us with her. Was the end but your sister had hoped for? I think so. She slipped into a coma. There was a struggle with breathing which is the nature of this medication she took. She was not in pain or discomfort at all. And when I say that the end she died peacefully, she truly dead. I know it's cliché to say someone has a peaceful look on their face but I was there with a nurse pronounced her and I looked at her first and it was beautiful. I've been speaking with Kelly Davis. The name of her article is what I learned helping my sister use California's new law to enter life. Killing thank you so much for speaking with -- Kelly, thank you so much for speaking with us.

San Diego reporter Kelly Davis typically covers criminal justice, prisons and the county's efforts to fight homelessness, but her most recent story is a personal one: Davis wrote about her sister Betsy's decision to end her life under California's new aid-in-dying law.

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Davis, writing in Voice of San Diego, said her sister was diagnosed with ALS in 2013, and Betsy subsequently struggled to eat, speak and sometimes breathe. Betsy had been thinking about ending her life for about a year, and once the aid-in-dying law went into effect in June, she began planning a "rebirth party" at her house in Ojai.

"You are all very brave for sending me off on my journey," Betsy wrote in an email to her guests. "There are no rules. Wear what you want, speak your mind, dance, hop, chant, sing, pray, but do not cry in front of me. OK, one rule.”

Davis said her sister had always been independent and struggled with losing control over her own body.

“My sister is an example of exactly what the law intended to do: allow a dying young woman the ability to assert control over the chaos and uncertainty of terminal illness," Davis wrote. "She turned death into a reason to celebrate, and she was there to enjoy the party.”

Davis' story was quickly picked up by outlets around the world, including the Associated Press, the Daily Mail and People magazine.

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"She wanted her story to get out there," Davis said. "I told her, 'I’ll write an op-ed and describe how going through this whole process with you reaffirms this is a good law.' She gave me this look of disapproval, which meant, 'This sounds so dull.'"