Two days ago I read about Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with aggressive, terminal brain cancer. If you haven’t watched her video or read her op-ed (and you should), Brittany’s story is making news because she’s taking advantage of the Death with Dignity Act that is available to residents of Oregon (and WA, VT, MT, and NM). In the 17-years since Oregon passed the law, fewer than 1% of its 752 doctor-assisted deaths have been for people Brittany’s age.
As I watched the video Brittany and her family made detailing her decision, I cried. In Brittany I see Jackie: passion for life and travel, a desire to leave the world a better place, and resigned acceptance that a cure is not going to be discovered in time to save her. Jackie had the same kind of tumor (Stage IV Glioblastoma Multiforme) and they were even the same age at diagnosis.
GBM is a wretched, terrible way to die. Jackie lived with a constant, excruciating headache, and the different medications she took caused awful side effects. She was always at risk for debilitating seizures. She didn’t want to die, but mostly, she didn’t want to put her family through her death. She worried about being a burden, losing her faculties, and having a long, lingering death that would torture her and everyone who loved her.
Brittany is using some of her last few days to help raise awareness for Death with Dignity laws. She believes that everyone should have the option to reduce suffering at the end of life, and have some control over how and when they die. I admire her so much for using this time to help give others access to the choices that were available to her.
This is a choice. Passing a Death with Dignity law does NOT mean that, upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, a patient will then be walked into a room where they’ll be handed a packet of “suicide drugs” that they have to immediately take. It means that, should a terminal patient choose to, s/he can go to a doctor and receive a prescription for oral medications that they would again choose to take (or not take!) to help aid the dying process. According to several articles I read, many terminal patients find tremendous comfort in simply having the drugs in their possession, knowing that they finally have some control over their lives again.
I don’t know if Jackie would have ultimately chosen to take advantage of a Death with Dignity option if it had been available in California, but I believe she would have at least considered it. I know she would have appreciated having the choice. I would want the choice. Everyone deserves that final say in their life.