The difficult debate became a national conversation last fall when a 29-year-old terminally ill young woman chose to end her waning life on her own terms in one of only three states where that choice is legally possible. And she made her struggle public. Her name was Brittany Maynard. Her husband, Dan Diaz, is working to expand “Aid in Dying” laws. He told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that Maynard suffered from a variety of symptoms.
“The weeks leading up to Nov. 1 when Brittany passed, the pain that she had would start at the base of her skull would radiate throughout her head and that pain became constant,” said Diaz. “Every day she felt that more intensely, the nauseous seizures, the seizures were the worst. When those came about, there’d be times where, well with any of the seizures she wouldn’t be able to speak for a while. There was one time where that lasted for four hours and we had to go to the hospital just so that they could administer the meds that she needed because she wasn’t able to keep anything down that day.”
Maynard, who had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, had been given six months to live. Diaz said that there is no cure for the disease.
Diaz supported his wife’s decision to end her life on her terms and said that the process has been tough. He said that they had been looking for cures and treatment options to see what was available. Maynard said that “Death with Dignity” would be her last resort, but according to Diaz, after recognizing how severe Maynard’s condition was, they were all supportive of her decision to die without suffering.
After sharing Maynard’s story, Diaz said that he wants people to know that one voice can make a difference. He said that with what Maynard started, about 12 states around the country have started Death with Dignity legislation — including their home state of California. New Jersey is also among the states considering the legislation.
For about 20 years, surveys have shown that seven out of 10 Americans support the Death with Dignity idea. Diaz said politics has played a role in stopping the passage of legislation.
“Unfortunately I would say it’s some politics,” said Diaz. “There’s certainly legislators and then religious institutions that get involved and unfortunately that takes away from where this debate should really be focused on, which is the patient.”
On the difference between suicide and letting go of life on your own terms, Diaz said that suicide would be somebody who wants to die. He said that his wife did not want to die, but the brain tumor was killing her. He explained that aid in dying allows a patient control over the amount of suffering they will endure. He said that Maynard felt that all Americans should have that option nationwide and not have to look for states that allow it.
A recent survey of doctors has shown that 54 percent of physicians support a patient’s ability to make decisions if they are terminally ill. That number is up from 46 percent just five years ago. Diaz thinks that Maynard’s contribution helped start the conversation and got people thinking about it, including doctors.
“I had physicians that were part of Brittany’s team when I got back to California and I started asking, ‘What did you think as a doctor, as a physician, of what Brittany did?’ and they said, ‘You know I support it. I think this should be a part of a comprehensive health decision and allowing the patient to decide, not the doctors,’” Diaz said.
Meanwhile advocates for the disabled are fearful that Death with Dignity could be abused and used in an attempt to get rid of people with disabilities. Diaz disagrees and said in Maynard’s case, two doctors had to agree that she only had six months to live. He also said patients must be deemed mentally competent and individuals would have to pursue this option on their own and be approved.
“The protections, I believe, looking at Oregon that’s been in statute for 17 years, there hasn’t been one reported case of any sort of coercion or anything like that,” Diaz said.
If Maynard were still alive, Diaz said that she would say the Death with Dignity option is something that is a basic health right that shouldn’t be left up to a politician.
“So I think her message would be, get these laws on the books and then allow the patient working with their physician to make the decisions that are best for that patient,” Diaz said. “It really does affect a small percentage of people that need to avail themselves of this. Most cases palliative medicine will take care of it but for those people who find themselves in this predicament, the difference it makes to those patients and to the families is huge. So allow the patient to decide for themselves how much suffering.”