Esmé Deprez and her father, Ronald Deprez, in a restaurant in Cairo in 2017. Photo courtesy of Esmé Deprez

Ronald Deprez had no interest in drawing out his last months after he was diagnosed with a degenerative neuromuscular disorder for which there is no cure.

His life, which had been full, rich and, above all, active, was radically changed and he knew it would never go back. He’d earned the right to end it on his terms, his daughter said.

So, Deprez spent his final days at the home he built in Deer Isle, overlooking Penobscot Bay. He read Wordsworth poems and listened to Leonard Cohen. He looked at pictures and shared stories with his two grown children, Esmé and Réal, and his son-in-law, Alex, and 13-month-old granddaughter, Fern. They drank shots of Irish whiskey, Redbreast 15-year.

And then, when he decided it was time, he took the medications that would stop his heart.

“It was peaceful. He wasn’t in any pain,” said Esmé Deprez. “If there was a good way to go, this was it.”

Ronald Deprez, who died April 21 at age 75, is among the first Maine residents to end his own life under a fiercely debated law that narrowly passed last year. The law, referred to as the Maine Death with Dignity Act, took effect on Sept. 18 and was used only once in the first three and half months, according to a report released to the Legislature last month. It’s not known how many people besides Deprez have used the law so far in 2020. Physicians are required to report cases to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but the agency is required only to submit annual reports. A spokesperson could not provide any 2020 data on Friday.

Esmé Deprez said for her father, the decision was clear. He had lost the freedom that guided his life – freedom to travel, to run marathons or rock climb or even work on projects around the house.

“He was never one to sit and just relax for a minute,” she said. “So, when his life became all you can do is sit in a chair and watch TV … it was awful.”

Ronald Deprez sails with his daughter, Esmé, off the coast of Birch Island, near Harpswell, in the late 1980s. “He was never one to sit and just relax for a minute,” she said.  Photo courtesy of Esmé Deprez

Maine became just the ninth state to allow people with terminal illnesses to end their life, but the law faced loud and uncharacteristically nonpartisan opposition. Gov. Janet Mills said signing it was the hardest decision she’d made in her first five months as governor.

“It is my hope that this law, while respecting the right of personal liberty, will be used sparingly and that we will respect the life of every citizen with the utmost concern for their spiritual and physical well-being,” she said at the time.

Valerie Lovelace, executive director of Maine Death with Dignity, said she had been in touch with Esmé Deprez as her father was navigating the process.

“He was able to have the death he wanted,” Lovelace said. “For me, and the work we’ve been doing, there is no greater reward than that.”

Each decision is intensely personal, but Esmé said her family was grateful he had the option.

“We didn’t have that internal family conflict that can sometimes be there,” she said.

Besides, she said: “My dad wasn’t someone you could talk out of anything.”

GROWING UP IN PORTLAND

Ronald Deprez grew up poor in Portland’s Payson Park neighborhood, a childhood that led to a lifetime of resourcefulness.

He graduated from Cheverus High School in 1962, followed by a year at Cushing Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts. From there, he went to Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in government, but he was proudest of his accomplishments as a fullback on the football team.

A neck injury during that time later disqualified him for the military draft in 1969 that might have sent him to Vietnam, a war he ended up protesting against. Instead, he continued going to school and earned both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Esmé Deprez and her father, Ronald Deprez, skiing in the winter of 1988-89 at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Esmé Deprez

He also received a Master of Public Health from Harvard University, which led to a long career in public health, first as a policy analyst for the Maine Legislature in the late 1970s and then through his own consulting firm, Public Health Resource Group, based in Portland. He later founded the Public Health Research Institute, a nonprofit that helped communities address adverse health conditions.

He was something of a Renaissance man, equally at ease hunting the Maine woods as he was reciting early 19th-century poetry from memory.

His college athletic career turned into a lifelong pursuit of wellness – skiing, biking, swimming, yoga, even into his 70s.

As a father, he was tough but generous and instilled the idea, “that something’s not worth doing unless it’s done right,” according to his obituary.

Esmé said that’s what made her dad’s illness so tragic. He could no longer do the things that filled his bucket.

After undergoing a neck operation in March 2019 to address an old injury, Deprez watched as his body failed to properly recover.

“The surgery sent him on a downward trajectory,” Esmé said. “He just got progressively worse. For him, it was torture, absolute torture.”

Deprez had talked to his children before about aging. He told them he didn’t want to live out his days in a nursing home and he didn’t want to rely on others for feeding.

As his health deteriorated in the late spring of 2019, Maine lawmakers were narrowly passing a law that would give people like him another option.

Esmé said her father “kept a lot of this stuff close,” but said he was aware of the law and “probably intrigued or relieved that it might be an option.”

Lovelace, director of Maine Death with Dignity, said when the law first went into effect in September, many health care providers were still trying to figure out how to proceed and putting their own policies in place.

She said when the state’s top health organization, MaineHealth, announced it would support patient decisions on death with dignity, that was a big deal.

“But even now, it’s still so new,” she said.

Lovelace expects any controversy over the law to dissipate with time.

“I think the opposition is still the opposition,” she said. “For some people this just doesn’t fit their moral values. But while we can argue what’s right or wrong from a moral place, this is an option that is legally and medically available to us now.”

Ronald Deprez enjoys a cigar and a martini on the porch of his home in Deer Isle in 2016. Photo courtesy of Esmé Deprez

NAVIGATING THE PROCESS

Deprez started seriously taking steps to qualify for death with dignity in late February, his daughter said. Without that option, she said he would have considered what’s known as VSED. That stands for voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. He would have starved himself to death, a process that can take a week or more and is filled with intense pain.

Esmé, who lives in California, was in New York for work when he called to tell her that he had begun the process. As spelled out in the law, that involved making two separate requests to his physician, Dr. Steven Edwards of Martin’s Point. Esmé said her father worried that Edwards might not be supportive – doctors are permitted to opt out, per Maine’s law – but the opposite turned out to be true. Edwards said he was not available to speak about Deprez’s case on Friday.

When Deprez told his daughter that he needed help navigating the process, she flew to Maine with her husband and young daughter to be with him.

“It’s a big decision and it shouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t find it burdensome,” Esmé said.

The one problem was: She couldn’t be with him right away. Both Esmé and her husband, Alex, chose to self-quarantine out of concern they might have contracted the coronavirus. They went directly to the home on Deer Isle, which was empty because her father had been staying in Yarmouth with his girlfriend.

One of the people Esmé called during that time was Lovelace, who was able to answer process questions.

In addition to the two oral requests, Deprez had to put it in writing that he wanted his doctor to prescribe life-ending medication. Then Edwards had to sign off that the patient indeed had a terminal illness – in Deprez’s case, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – and that he likely would not live longer than six months. The doctor also had to ensure that the patient was not suffering from any mental illness and was not being coerced by anyone.

Edwards wrote the prescription for the cocktail of drugs – an anti-nausea medication, followed by digoxin, which stops the heart, followed by powerful painkillers.

Esmé said taking her dad’s truck to pick up the prescription was surreal.

The hardest decision that remained, though, was when he would take them.

“He truly believed that this was the best way for him, but he agonized about when,” Esmé said.

By mid-April, she and her family were no longer in isolation and had driven to Yarmouth to be with him.

On Saturday, April 18 – Esmé’s birthday – they went for a walk, although Deprez had to settle for the wheelchair. During that walk, he told her he wanted to go to Deer Isle. That’s where he wanted to die.

They left the next day.

FINAL DAYS WITH HIS CHILDREN

Esmé drove with her family from Yarmouth to Deer Isle, a small community in Hancock County surrounded almost entirely by water. Home to fisherman and artists and eclectics of all kinds. Ronald Deprez fit in well there.

Ronald Deprez with his children, Esme (left), and Real (right), skiing in California in December 2015. Photo courtesy of Esme Deprez

Esmé’s brother, Réal, who also lives in California, flew into Bangor that Saturday and arrived in Deer Isle on Sunday evening.

Originally, Deprez’s plan was to take the drugs on Monday, April 20, but because he hadn’t had many chances to be with both of his children at the same time over the last several years, he waited a day.

They looked through old photos and shared stories and made sure they knew how to prepare the medication

When Monday rolled into Tuesday, he skipped breakfast because he wasn’t supposed to eat six hours prior. This would be the day.

In preparation for his death, Deprez had collected some poetry and music and talked with his children about a memorial service – one that would have to be put on hold indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Esmé’s husband, Alex, read the famous Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and Deprez recited portions of a long piece by the English poet William Wordsworth called “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

The poem begins:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

Deprez took the first drug, an anti-nausea medication, about 4 p.m.

The sky was overcast, which felt appropriate, Esmé said. They wheeled him out to the porch, overlooking the water, which he loved so much, and sat there until it started to drizzle.

A half-hour later, Esmé and her brother mixed the digoxin with water, poured it into a rocks glass with ducks on the side and watched as her father drank it. The drug would eventually cause his heart to stop but not right away.

“After the second drug, there’s no turning back,” she said.

They continued reading poetry and listening to music – “Mr. Bojangles,” the David Bromberg version, and “All Along the Watchtower,” the Dave Matthews Band version.

The final drug he would take was a powerful mix of painkillers that would put him to sleep. He drank that too as he sat, slightly reclined, in a chair while his children sat vigil. Esmé said for about three hours, it looked like he was napping. He even snored.

He stopped breathing around 8:30, but his heartbeat continued for another 15 or 20 minutes, Esmé said.

“Then it was awful,” she said. “We cried a bunch more and sat with him a while longer. Eventually, we called the funeral home and they retrieved his body around midnight.

“It was strange – you don’t want to say goodbye, but you know they aren’t there. It was just his body. It wasn’t him.”

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