Once she could no longer “drive the bus,” Dr. Mary Donahue decided to get off with the same dignity, style and determination that marked her life.
Knowing that she was going to die, Donahue held her own “living wake” — a combination 85th birthday and good-bye party — because she wanted to be at her own memorial service. Of course, most of the people there did not know she would soon enter hospice care, said her daughter, Bridget Donahue Borgeson of Excelsior.
But Donahue, who died June 14 after 20 years as a family practice doctor in Monticello, Minn., had strong opinions about wasting precious time and money on intensive medical care at the end of life. She decided to die on her own terms.
“My brother said, ‘She has her bus ticket,’ ” Borgeson said. “But my husband said, ‘No, she can’t drive the bus anymore, so she’s going to get off.’ She was a very unusual woman.”
Donahue was born on the eve of the Great Depression, and grew up the daughter of a country doctor.
She accompanied him on house calls riding a manure wagon in summer and a sleigh in the winter. Her parents opened and ran the 15-bed Monticello Hospital for years, and, as a child, Donahue did laundry, washed test tubes and stood on a stool next to her father as he performed surgeries.
It was a different era in medicine. No patient went unseen, even if they could only pay in butter or eggs, Borgeson said. And few women became doctors.
Donahue became a laboratory medicine technologist and continued to work at her parents’ hospital. She married Patrick Donahue, a cabinet maker from Big Lake, Minn., and they had two children.
She returned to school to get a master’s degree and realized that the courses she was taking would give her everything she needed to apply for medical school.
When she was in her early forties, she applied to the University of Minnesota, and was rejected.
“She came home and she was kind of upset,” Borgeson said. The admissions committee told her they would not accept her application because she was too old and because she was a woman. One of the people on the committee was a woman who questioned why someone who already had a husband, family and home would need to go to medical school, Borgeson said.
But Donahue’s husband pushed her. Borgeson remembers him asking, “Are you only going to try once?” The next year she got in.
The following years weren’t easy. In their small, conservative town, many residents questioned her choices, but Donahue’s husband always supported her, Borgeson said.
“He would say, ‘A woman’s place is in the home, and she should go there directly after work,’ ” Borgeson said.
When her husband died in 2007, Donahue moved to a townhouse community for adults in Shorewood, but never slowed down.
“It was like she finally got her college apartment,” Borgeson said. She joined two book clubs, started a community garden program, and joined the League of Women Voters, “Where she really had to hold her tongue.”
Donahue believed strongly in the Hippocratic oath, the doctor’s mandate to “first do no harm,” and was a critic of profit-driven health care, Borgeson said. That guided her decision to forgo the surgery that could have extended her life, a decision that exacted a cost. Two weeks after her party, she died “in dignified way,” Borgeson said, and many of her friends told her, “Mary, you are showing us how to do it.”