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Minutes later, when Nancy died in her son's arms on a day she had carefully planned—from an early-morning visit to her favorite park to the flowers that adorned her yard— she became one of the thousands of people who have hastened their deaths in the last 20 years using controversial laws in place in six states.

When physician-assisted death was legalized in Oregon in 1997, it became the first state to pass the Death with Dignity Act, which typically allows doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to a mentally competent patient who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is thought to have six months or less to live.

But in 2006, as a divorced empty nester in Santa Barbara, CA, Nancy began having balance and mobility problems.

Soon, she could only get around using hiking poles to stay steady on her feet.

Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the progressive and incurable disorder destroys nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movements.

On average, ALS patients live between two and five years after they're diagnosed. She still actively sought treatment, but she and Marnie also began having serious discussions about death.

If and when a patient decides to take the medication, he or she must be able to ask for and ingest it.

During Nancy's last two hours, her oldest sister, Marnie Wood; son, Winter Valko, then 28; daughter, Asylan Valko, then 25; and former husband, Edward Valko, the father of her children, continued to talk to her, hoping that their words would bring her comfort.

"We told her how much we loved her, recalled the wonderful times we'd had together and praised her role as an amazing mom," says Marnie.

That trip led to more tests and a different diagnosis.

Nancy didn't have MS; she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.