Dying with Dignity: How Brittany Maynard is Changing the Conversation about Elective Death in America

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Brittany Maynard will die November 1, 2014.  She knows this because she chose that date carefully and consciously.  She will take her own life despite being able to say, “There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die,” during a recent interview with People Magazine.

Ms. Maynard was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most lethal and deadly type of brain tumor in adults earlier this year.  Her cancer is progressing rapidly and this spring she was given a prognosis of six months.  She is using that time in an extraordinarily selfless way. She wants to change the way America thinks about elective death, or dying with dignity as it is most commonly referred to in legislative circles.

As it currently stands, there are five states that have death with dignity laws on the books.  At the time of her diagnosis and disease progression, Brittany was living in her home state of California, not one of the five (Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana).  Knowing what her future held for her, and coming to understand that as her brain tumor progressed that future would inevitably end in a difficult, painful, and debilitating death, Brittany and her family made the decision to move residence to the state of Oregon, where the death with dignity act was legalized in 1997.

She explains it better than I ever could.  Take a few minutes and watch this:

It is Brittany’s wish for any American to be able to exercise the right to die when faced with a terminal diagnosis that would result in a lingering, painful death.  She sees it as unjust that just because she and her family have the economic resources to pick up stakes and move to accommodate her literal dying wish they are in a position of privilege that most Americans are not.

I salute her.  And today I will do whatever I can to support her efforts.

The last time practicing compassionate choice at the end of life consumed so much media space was with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, or “Dr. Death” as he was so often derided.  Brittany Maynard is the antithesis of Dr. Kevorkian, despite their goals being identical.  She is a wife, a daughter, a young woman, a beauty that will be cut like a rose in its prime.

Photo from The Brittany Maynard Fund website.
Photo from The Brittany Maynard Fund website.

Last night, as I watched the video above, my tears started flowing.  I cried for Brittany and her mother and husband, but I also cried for me and my Mom and my own family.  The death that Ms. Maynard and her family moved across state lines to avoid is the very same death that my Mom experienced as we sat helplessly by.

Glioblastoma Multiforme, or “GBM” as it’s called in Cancerville, is a beast. My Mom was diagnosed with it in the spring of 2004.  She died eleven months after her diagnosis, but make no mistake, the prognosis was apparent from practically day one.  After her tumor resection, my Mom’s surgeon walked into the tiny, windowless family conference rooms all hospitals have for this purpose and said the words, “She will die from this.”

And she did.

Along with other family and paid caregivers, I provided care for my Mom in the nine months it took for her to die after that surgery.  I bathed her and fed her and toileted her and brushed her dentures and washed her sheets and did everything a human body requires when it is paralyzed and no longer works as it was intended.  These were loving acts that prepared me for motherhood and my own daughter’s brain tumor just two years later.

Whether or not my Mom would have wanted to exercise a more dignified death than the one she had is not a question I can engage in.  That choice would have never been mine to make.  And whether or not my daughter would have benefited from a death hastened and softened by medication is not a question I will engage in.  That choice is too personal for public consumption.

But having seen two loved ones, my mother and my daughter, die from the effects of aggressive brain tumors, I know first hand what awaits Brittany Maynard.  And with that intimate knowledge, I support her right to choose her time and circumstances of death.  And let’s be clear, folks:  Brittany Maynard is not choosing death.  Death chose her.  Brittany is exercising her right as a citizen of the state of Oregon to die with dignity.  She wants every American to have access to that same right.

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If you want more information on The Brittany Maynard Fund, a campaign organized by the Compassion & Choices organization, click HERE. They are currently working with five states to expand death with dignity legislation.  Those states are California, Colorado, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut.  

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