An officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, O’Donnell was promoted to sergeant, and detective, while simultaneously going to law school. She switched her career to attorney, and was good: one law firm was so impressed with her abilities to destroy their own case during trial that they hired her, and made her a partner. But in 2014 O’Donnell was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and while she made peace with the fact she was dying, she noted “I am really afraid of my daughter” having to go through watching her waste away, in constant pain. As a police officer and a lawyer, she knew full well that assisted suicide wasn’t a legal option, and as a devout Christian and lifelong Republican, she refused to break the law — so she set about changing it. She filed a lawsuit against the state seeking the right to die law in her home state of California, not just for herself, but for anyone who wanted and needed such access.
“Even if there is one person, just one, in the state of California that needs this and wants this, this should become law,” she said. “I don’t intend to leave any life on the table,” she said, but her pain was intractible because she had a bad reaction to morphine, and the “last-ditch” drug the doctor gave her offered little relief. “I take a lot of it and it barely takes the edge off the pain.” Her cause was taken up by a legislator who also had a previous career — as a hospice worker. O’Donnell campaigned for the legislation, which makes it legal for terminal patients to end their own lives, and allows doctors to give them the drugs to do it, though only under strictly controlled conditions. The law was passed by the state legislature, and signed by the governor — a former Jesuit seminarian — in October, after he announced that if he was facing a painful death, “it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.” California thus joined Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, and New Mexico with such humane laws. O’Donnell predicted she would die before it went into effect later this year; she did, on February 6, with her daughter, Bailey, now 21, holding her hand. She was 47.