Service in the Name of Compassion

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Julie Sutherland McMurchie '81 is a public face for end-of-life choices
From the Spring 2010 Caller
When Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act passed in 1994, Julie Sutherland McMurchie ’81 hardly noticed. A new mom who had three babies in four years, she was overwhelmed with family responsibilities. The Act zoomed into precise focus for her in 2001, though, when her beloved mother was dying of lung cancer at age 68—and made the decision to choose the way she would die.
 
Peggy Sutherland was an active, intelligent, and independent woman who had survived a bout of cancer in 1986. When she was diagnosed with a new lung cancer in 2000, she and her family fought it until they had exhausted all medical treatments, and she was declared terminal. In great pain and discomfort, Peggy knew what she wanted: to die on her own terms. After going through the state’s careful screening process, she died at home in January 2001 after taking a lethal dose of barbiturates supplied by her doctor. She was surrounded in peace by her family and their love, and Julie was by her side.
 
This experience was transformative for Julie. She and her family had received counseling from Compassion & Choices of Oregon, a group dedicated to informing the public about endof- life choices. The organization recognized Julie as someone who believed in their cause both emotionally and intellectually. After her mother died they asked Julie if she would like to do media appearances and public speaking about her mother’s experience. Julie became an impassioned speaker. “Public speaking makes me remember my mom and keeps me close to her,” she says. “It has been a good part of my grieving.”
 
Julie became more and more involved with Compassion & Choices, willing to work hard to help the organization grow and succeed. Today she is the chair of the board and has gained recognition for her effective leadership in fundraising and outreach. “I’m lucky to be in Oregon at the forefront of the movement. I’m at a place I can make an impact, and there’s lots of impact to be made,” she says. “I’m most proud of helping terminally ill people understand their choices. I want them to know that if their suffering gets too large, there’s an option. It brings comfort to people, even if they never do more than gather information.”
 
Julie came to Catlin Gabel in her junior year, and says that her education there was crucial to her: “It changed the way I think about myself. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.” She and husband Brad have three children, Kate ’11, Grace ’12, and Simon ’15, who have absorbed the value of service from school and family. Julie and Kate spent two weeks this spring in Uganda working in a medical clinic, and Grace plans to go on a service trip to Tanzania this summer. Julie is gratified that service work is so much a part of the culture for her children and their generation and is eager to see where their compassion will lead them. “I’m excited to see what my children end up doing,” she says.