I sat in an office at the Colorado state Capitol, on the opposite side of a desk from a state legislator. I waited for him to avert his eyes from his computer screen. “I can give you five minutes,” he said as he finally peered up at me from his desk chair.
“Thank you, Senator, I appreciate it.”
I thought he’d been dodging me as I’d tried to chat with him in the hallway earlier that morning, but it was just another hectic day at yet another state capitol, that week in 2016 I was in Denver.
I was there fighting for the legalization of medical aid in dying, which allows terminally ill individuals to make the choice to end their lives gently instead of enduring prolonged suffering. What put me on this path? My wife Brittany Maynard’s very public choice to end her life this way while dying of brain cancer. It was a decision that made her the focus of a slew of press coverage, including the cover of People magazine, and brought to the public eye an issue that has slowly been winning legal battles across the nation.
I needed this particular senator’s key vote in order to advance Colorado’s End of Life Options Act. Legislators are always receptive to hearing my story. They are curious about my wife and want to hear the firsthand account of what she endured as she navigated the final few weeks of her life.
I cleared my throat. “My name is Dan Diaz, and I am Brittany Maynard’s husband. Brittany died on November 1, 2014, of a brain tumor. She endured an eight-hour brain surgery, and we researched every treatment option that offered any hope of extending her life. But the brain tumor was growing aggressively. They told her she had six months to live.”
It doesn’t take much for the emotion to well up within me, so I stopped to take a deep breath.
I explain how Brittany decided that we should move from our home in California to Oregon in order for her to have the option of a gentle death afforded by Oregon’s death with dignity act. “I made a promise to Brittany to help pass legislation in other states so that terminally ill individuals in her predicament would never have to leave their homes like we did,” I tell the senator.
Over the past two and a half years, I have traveled the country to meet with legislators in a dozen different state capitals. At times I am bewildered that my life has taken me on this journey. I spend my days speaking with elected officials, medical institutions, and community groups about end-of-life options. The travel schedule can be intense. I miss Brittany every day.
My wife, Brittany Maynard, pushed the issue of aid in dying into the spotlight
When I meet with elected officials, I share Brittany’s story and the reality of this medical program. Many of them share with me their own story concerning a loved one of theirs, usually a parent, who endured a harsh dying process. Many times they shed tears of their own to match mine.
To be clear, Brittany, and any terminally ill individual in her situation, was not choosing between living and dying. The brain tumor was ending Brittany’s life. The option of living was no longer available to her. She was only choosing between two different methods of dying. One method would be gentle, peaceful. The other would result in being tortured to death by the increasingly intense symptoms she was already experiencing: unrelenting pain, nausea, sleep deprivation, seizures, and impending blindness and paralysis.
At the age of 29, she was facing her own mortality. But she would not leave her fate to the erratic and volatile course the cancer might take. And despite this terrible predicament, Brittany navigated the chaos of those 10 months with an overwhelming appreciation for life. When she was finally granted the aid-in-dying medication, it provided her with a sense of relief. She was able to focus on truly living life because she no longer had to be consumed with the “dying” part.
My role as caregiver was to be by her side, supporting her, and trying as hard as I could to commit to memory every moment we had together. The person I loved the most in the world would soon be gone. That reality kept me awake at night for those 10 months.
The support — and opposition — for aid in dying
With nearly 70 percent of the population agreeing with Brittany — that a terminally ill individual should have the option of medical aid in dying — I receive support from across the political spectrum. Some of the strongest supporters I’ve met are staunch conservatives.
I spend long days at state capitols, often debunking false narratives that the opposition has drummed up around this topic. Their script includes inflammatory language with terms like “euthanasia,” and “suicide.” Their agenda is to peddle fear concerning the disabled and the most vulnerable in our society.
Regarding terminology, the words "suicide" or "physician-assisted suicide" are neither applicable nor appropriate in describing this medical aid-in-dying program. A terminally ill individual who applies for this program is not suicidal. My wife wanted to live; a suicidal person wants to die. Brittany was not depressed, despondent, or making irrational decisions, all of those characteristics of a person that is suicidal.
As for the term “euthanasia,” that label defines a practice whereby a third party administers an agent to hasten a person’s death. Euthanasia is illegal in all 50 states and has no basis in this discussion. Still, the opposition use these inappropriate words all the time.
There are some activists within the disability community who fear that aid-in-dying laws will make it easier to pressure their community to end their lives. But I’ve found support from disability groups and disabled individuals in the states where I’ve advocated. Take this February 2016 letter from the executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, who states: “DRO has still not received a complaint of exploitation or coercion of an individual with disabilities in the use of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.”
To qualify for medical aid in dying, two physicians independent of one another have to agree the person is terminally ill with less than six months to live. The terminally ill individual must be mentally competent and make three requests, two verbally and one in writing. There is a 15-day waiting period in between requests, with witnesses present for the written portion. The strongest safeguard is that the individual has to be able to consume the medication on her own.
I’ve found that many who vehemently oppose death with dignity legislation seem to be the most careful about hiding their personal religious affiliation. In state after state, the biggest opponent to this legislation has been the Catholic Church leadership. Interestingly, support among everyday Catholics is 70 percent.
As a baptized and confirmed Catholic, I know the first lesson of our faith: God loves us all. I have absolutely no apprehension whatsoever in reconciling Brittany’s decision to avoid suffering in the dying process and the loving God that has welcomed her on the other side of her decision.
This might seem hard to believe right now, but despite the level of animosity currently swirling around the political arena, I continue to meet caring elected officials from both sides of the aisle who are genuinely interested in improving the lives of their constituents. They take the time to prudently study the merits of legislation like death with dignity statutes.
However, as you can imagine, there have been other occasions where I’ve been shocked by the arrogance and ridiculous comments uttered by our elected officials. On the floor of the Senate in 2015, a California state senator stated: “You want to drive off a cliff, drive off a cliff. You want to slit your wrists, slit your wrists. … This notion that you need state sponsorship to deliver — I just don’t need to approve what you choose.”
It is abhorrent to think this particular senator’s idea of compassionate care for a terminally ill person at end of life is reflected in his callous words about driving off a cliff.
In Colorado, the senator with the key vote calmly listened to my story about Brittany. Then he said, “Earlier this week I discussed medical aid in dying with my wife, and we are both supportive. She would want this option for herself, and I would also want to have this option for me. But I won’t be able to vote that way because of the pressure I’d receive from the leadership of my Republican caucus.”
I appreciated that he was honest enough to share that with me. But it was disheartening to hear this elected official put his party’s political agenda ahead of the will of his constituents. (Colorado ultimately passed this legislation through a ballot initiative in 2016 with an overwhelming majority of 65 percent in support.)
Consider that dichotomy. My wife, Brittany, had the determination to speak up to help hundreds of individuals who she would never meet. She lent her voice to this cause during the last few weeks of her life as she was dying. By contrast, this senator didn’t have the spine to do the job he is paid to do: represent his constituents. Instead, he simply chose to serve his party’s leaders and toe the party line.
Aid in dying has been legal in several states for years now. Here’s what we’ve learned.
Before Brittany died, only four states had statutes allowing medical aid in dying: Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana. With great pride in what Brittany began, we’ve successfully passed legislation in California, Colorado, and Washington, DC. In total, those seven jurisdictions make up almost 20 percent of the nation’s population.
In this summer’s report on the first year of the End of Life Option Act, the California Department of Public Health reported that 191 terminally ill individuals qualified for and received the medication. Of those, 111 individuals ended up using it.
I have no doubt that the 191 individuals who qualified for the prescription received an enormous sense of relief by simply having it, just like Brittany did. As for the 111 individuals who used it, they were able to achieve a gentle dying process instead of suffering unremittingly for their final days. That little bit of control at the end of life is paramount when you’re facing the chaos of a devastating disease.
A key finding of the California report is the 191 prescriptions were written by 173 different physicians. This exemplifies that physicians are judiciously and appropriately implementing this legislation. Physicians are not abandoning their patients to suffer at end of life, but instead providing all options so their patients can live as long as possible and still achieve a gentle dying process.
The strength of this legislation is that it is an option. An option that an individual has to apply for and qualify for by two concurring physicians who agree the individual is mentally competent and terminally ill with less than six months to live.
I held Brittany in my arms as she died gently. I do not speak in hypothetical terms about the vital importance of this legislation. I, unfortunately, can share the firsthand account of what Brittany was enduring as she battled that brain tumor. Over the past two and a half years, I can add the testimony from scores of palliative care physicians and terminally ill individuals who champion the passage of this program in their own states.
I read somewhere: “The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone. The things you do for other people live on as your legacy.”
Brittany’s legacy is her selfless determination to help other people in need. Advocating for this legislative effort is how I honor her. But to be clear, Brittany is gone, and I can no longer fight for her. I now fight for the rest of us.
Dan is the husband of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who died in November 2014 from a brain tumor. His efforts were instrumental in securing the passage of medical aid-in-dying legislation in California. Dan’s efforts continue across the country, keeping the promise he made to Brittany.