Brittany Maynard, from sadness to action
Editor’s note: Barbara Coombs Lee is president of Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life choice advocacy organization. As an attorney who was an emergency room and intensive care unit nurse and physician assistant for 25 years, she co-wrote the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) — Throughout the world hearts are breaking over the story of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard. She moved to Oregon for the chance to die peacefully with dignity because that option is not authorized in her home state of California.
Maynard was dying of brain cancer, and she took the opportunity to shorten a difficult dying process. She knew that, left to run its course, her cancer would swell the brain, crush it against the inside of her skull, cause seizures, headaches and loss of one bodily function after another. She chose to leave as the seizures and pain escalated.
Over 15 million people have watched YouTube videos featuring Maynard, her husband and mother describing her life, her journey with cancer and their grief. Maynard explains her choice about how to die. Since January, cancer had controlled her. When the end came close, she wanted to control cancer. Most people, courageous and forthright enough to see what cancer can do to a body before killing it, would share her desire.
Maynard became visible in order to raise awareness about aid in dying. It is the medical practice in which terminally ill, mentally competent adults can request and receive life-ending medication they can choose to take if dying is prolonged and unbearable.
Her ultimate goal was that those who want to do what she did will not have to uproot themselves and their families to move to a death-with-dignity state in their final weeks of life. She hoped her story would help change the law and medical practice in 45 states.
Will it? I fervently hope so. As I have already written, I believe her actions turn the tide of social change and make it unstoppable. But the people of America have to help. Millions of people watching her story, feeling sad, shedding a tear and returning to life as usual simply won’t do the job. People must hold the thought that Maynard’s story could be their story, or their mother’s, uncle’s, daughter’s or friend’s. Then they must turn the thought to action.
Maynard hoped to inspire people to do three things. “Do what matters” — that is, cherish every precious moment of life — share love, and help give those who are dying a chance for peace and dignity on their own terms.
Compassion & Choices will ask the hundreds of thousands who sent warm wishes to Brittany Maynard, and others, to send equally heartfelt pleas to every level of government. Maynard shaped her life with passion and purpose. May we all do the same, and realize her legacy of choice and control at its end.