There have been a lot of news stories in recent weeks about a young woman, Brittany Maynard, and her choice to end her life with support from Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.
Diagnosed with advanced brain cancer, Ms. Maynard actually moved with her husband to Oregon so she could establish residency and take advantage of the law.
She originally planned her death for last Saturday, November 1. Last I heard she was thinking of rescheduling, because she was still finding joy in living. I don’t know if she ended her life or not on Saturday, but when she does, if she does, it will be her choice.
I’ve posted before about my support for Death with Dignity laws, and feel fortunate that my own state, Washington, passed a law similar to Oregon’s in 2008.
I recently watched the award-winning but gut-wrenching documentary “How to Die in Oregon“. The filmmaker, Peter Richardson, followed several individuals who had chosen to end their lives. This is not a hard-hitting examination of the law’s inner workings, but rather a gentle and compassionate opportunity for these people to tell their stories and help us understand the decision process that brought each of them to his or her final day.
We also hear from their spouses, children, friends and health care providers.
Over and over again they used the word “choice”. The choice to let the brain, not the body, determine when the suffering was too great. The choice to decide when the treatment and its side effects were worse than dying. The choice to control those final images for family and loved ones.
Don’t call it suicide
I was truly moved by their courage, their honesty, and their understanding of what they wanted to do, and what they were asking of their families and care providers. These were not people making rash decisions based on fear or poor medical advice.
I’ve often used the phrase “physician-assisted suicide” when talking about the Death with Dignity laws, and I see now why that is an unfortunate label. One woman in the film made it clear that she did not consider ending her life suicide—suicide was a term for physically healthy people who took their own lives prematurely.
And Brittany Maynard, in the People interview, said “There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die. I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease, but there’s not.”
I won’t call it that again.
Peace of mind = quality of life
I would be glad to see Ms. Maynard experience a prolonged “good spell” in her disease progression.
To be eligible for using the Death with Dignity law, a patient must have a terminal disease with 6 months or less to live. But estimating when someone is going to die is certainly not an exact science.
Related post: End-of-life care – “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”
One patient featured in “How to Die in Oregon” had a similar experience to Ms. Maynard’s. She planned her death for Memorial Day, but felt too “full of life” and energetic to go through with it. She shared somewhat jokingly that she had given away all her jewelry to friends and had to go buy some more.
She believed that the peace of mind that came with focusing on living, rather than worrying about when and how she was going to die, gave her those precious six additional months with her husband and children.
This is not uncommon in patients receiving hospice care. Studies have shown that when terminal cancer patients receive adequate pain control, nutrition and emotional support they can outlive those receiving aggressive, last-resort chemotherapy.
Related post: End of life – Five Wishes
I know many people are opposed to the Death with Dignity laws. It’s not an easy topic to discuss or even think about. However, if you are interested in seeing how a handful of ordinary individuals faced an extraordinary decision, “How to Die in Oregon” is a beautifully-made testament to their courage. (But keep some Kleenex nearby.)
Brittany’s poignant story has renewed public debate. If you want to know the status of Death with Dignity legislation in your state, check out this link to the National Death with Dignity website.