Living with end-stage COPD, Fort Collins woman explains her decision to take aid-in-dying medication and her family’s response. Fort Collins Coloradoan
Debra Brockel knows her days are numbered. But her mind is at ease because she’s the one doing the counting.
Brockel, 60, has suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, since 2006. She has endured severe exacerbations of the disease, which irreversibly damages the lungs, and all manner of medical treatment and hospitalizations.
She has received hospice care from Pathways at her home in southwest Fort Collins since December after a year of palliative care, which is geared toward making gravely ill patients comfortable rather than curing them.
Her condition has deteriorated to the point she is prepared to take aid-in-dying medication. She wants to end her suffering, but she also wants to spare her family the anguish of watching her waste away.
“It’s been a long haul,” she said. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
The decision to end her life as allowed under Colorado law did not come quickly or easily. She consulted with doctors and family members, some of whom didn’t want to talk about how her life should end.
But in the end, Debra said, it was her decision to make. She is comfortable with it.
“I am at that point that I can’t do it anymore,” she said. “I hope the word gets out that there is such a thing as aid in dying and it can help people. They don’t have to lie in bed and suffocate and suffer.”
In 2016, Colorado voters approved Proposition 106, which amended state law to allow terminally ill patients access to aid-in-dying medication through a doctor’s prescription.
The End-of-Life Options Act spells out the conditions under which a prescription may be given and requires reporting on the act’s utilization.
In 2019, 170 patients received prescriptions for aid-in-dying medication. Among those, 129 patients received the medications, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Since 2017, 365 patients have requested aid-in-dying medication, with 62.5% of them suffering from some form of cancer. Medications were taken by 270 patients.
Bob Brockel, Debra’s husband of 31 years, said he was torn by the idea of Debra choosing to end her life but has come to accept it. The past six months have been grueling, as Debra entered the end stage of COPD.
“I don’t like to see her like this,” he said. “It’s not fair to her because it’s just going to get worse.”
Bob and Debra have known each other since 1973, when they were teenagers growing up in Fargo, North Dakota. They were friends for a long time, had fallings-out but made up, and eventually went their separate ways.
Both married and then divorced. They found each other again, and Bob invited Debra to join him in Colorado.
They were married in 1988 by a justice of the peace in Jefferson County. Bob adopted Debra’s son and daughter, and life with its ups and downs went on. Bob and Debra have five grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way.
While recent times have been dark for the family because of Debra’s deteriorating health, they enjoyed a bright time in February, thanks in large part to the kindness of strangers.
Debra and Bob had talked for a long time about renewing their wedding vows. Debra let it be known she would enjoy a traditional wedding ceremony and reception — experiences she never had.
Her daughter, Jennifer, sprang into action. With money tight because of Debra’s medical needs, Jennifer posted a request for wedding decorations on the Facebook group Free in Larimer County. She explained her mother was terminally ill.
The response was overwhelming, Jennifer said. People donated everything that would be needed for a wedding, including flowers, decorations, and a dress and shoes for the bride. People volunteered to do Debra’s hair, makeup and nails so she would look her best on the big day.
Everything came together in six days.
Pathways donated space at its Fort Collins facility. The ceremony took place Feb. 15, the day after Valentine’s Day.
Every family member had a role in the ceremony. Their 9-year-old grandson, Drake, served as best man.
“Everything was done for me, and bless their hearts for doing that,” Debra said. “It just tells me that Fort Collins still has a heart, that the people of this town are still the best.”
Gratitude is part of the message Debra wants to send to the community in her final days. She is especially thankful for the care she has received from Pathways, a nonprofit that has served the community for decades.
“They are the best,” she said. “All I have to do is call and they are right here for me.”
And she is grateful to her family, who has stood by her for so many years, in good times and in bad. She said Bob has been her “rock” and the “strongest man I’ve ever known.”
She knows he’ll be strong for the family after she is gone.
“It has been a very good life,” she said. “My family has always been number one in my life. I can go to sleep knowing they will be OK. Papa will be there.”
Kevin Duggan is a senior columnist and reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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