Brittany Maynard and her husband, Dan Diaz, were thrust into the limelight in October 2014 after the 29-year-old publicly announced her intentions to use Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.
At the time, California, where she and her husband resided, did not have a medical aid in dying bill that would allow patients with terminal diagnoses to take a drug that would end their suffering.
Ms Maynard was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just a little over a year after she married Mr Diaz and she was given a prognosis of just six months.
A People Magazine article released in October gave Ms Maynard a voice to explain her decision to utilise medical aid in dying at the end of her battle with brain cancer. The online story announcing her death became the biggest story in Time Inc publication history at the time, garnering more than 16.1m unique visitors online, according to Advertising Age.
“There's a reason that her story did have the effect that it did,” Mr Diaz told The Independent. “She's a 29 year old intelligent, well-spoken, beautiful individual who's dying … Brittany, she was very relatable.”
“It's that saying, ‘Be the change that you want to see.’ She spoke up so that legislators would recognize laws needed to change so that it's not just four states, as it was back then, that has this option,” he added. “She did not set out to be the face of this movement. That's the label that the media gave her. Her hope was simply to get legislators motivated."
The couple established residency in Oregon and found two physicians to sign off on her taking a fatal dose of barbiturates, one of the lethal drugs used for medical aid in dying, all while she battled a likely stage 4 glioblastoma – the same brain cancer that later killed Senator John McCain.
It was decided by Ms Maynard that she would take the medication on 1 November, after she first was prescribed it in May of that same year, if her symptoms, which included grand mal seizures, grew to be too severe.
“There is always that hope, because that is also intrinsic in all of us, that maybe there is a cure. Not a cure in her case, but some treatment that can extend her life,” Mr Diaz said. “Then that hope quickly changes to now we're just hoping that she isn't suffering too much, you know, day in and day out.”
Having the medication allowed Ms Maynard to “focus on living her life” instead of being concerned for how the dying process could go as the symptoms from her brain tumour grew worse, her husband said.
Ms Maynard died on 1 November with the assistance of a prescription drug.
On her death certificate, it lists the cause of death as her glioblastoma.
“The underlying disease is what's listed because it was a brain tumor that was ending her life,” Mr Diaz said.
Now, nearly six years later, Mr Diaz has continued his wife’s advocacy work to help other states pass medical aid in dying laws so other people don’t have to establish residency in another state to access the right.
“When Brittany died, there were only four states that afforded a terminally ill individual this option,” he said. Five other states plus the District of Columbia have since passed their own medical aid in dying laws.
Terminally ill residents in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington can access the end-of-life option.
“It's how I honour Brittany's legacy. It's how I keep my promise to her and make a difference for the rest of us,” Mr Diaz added.
California was one state to pass its own medical aid in dying bill, entitled the End of Life Option Act, in 2015 following the death of Ms Maynard. The act was mirrored after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which was the first of its kind in the United States.
“When [former California Governor Jerry Brown] signed it and then when it finally became available for me, there was just that feeling of pride in Brittany,” Mr Diaz said, who has since moved back to he and Ms Maynard’s home in Alamo, California.
“Then the second emotion … it was a sense of relief for terminally ill individuals like Brittany, that they don't have to go through what we went through,” he continued. ”They don't have to find a new medical team in another state and rent a house on Craigslist and pack up half your house into a U-Haul.”
“Literally that's why we left. Just to make sure she didn't have to suffer horrifically as the brain tumor continued down its trajectory. No one should have to do that,” Mr Diaz added.
He found his wife was able to “take back a little bit of control” from her cancer by having access to the drug. But the prescription did not rush her to take the medication, he added.
“Brittany was not going to let that brain tumor dictate how her final few days on this green Earth would play out,” he said.
Mr Diaz now works as an independent contractor with Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization dedicated to end-of-life options for the American public. In his role, Mr Diaz travels the US to speak to legislators about medical aid in dying bills in their own state and the benefits it could have for constituents, all while sharing Ms Maynard’s story.
When he first spoke with The Independent in February, Mr Diaz was travelling to states to speak directly to legislators about their own medical aid in dying bills. Due to coronavirus, he now spends a majority of his time discussing medical aid in dying with legislators through email, phone calls, and video meetings.
Multiple states, including New York and Massachusetts, currently have bills going through the legislature that would give terminally ill residents end-of-life options similar to California and other states. But the pandemic has forced legislatures to adjourn for the session.
New York lawmakers indicated to The Independent it would be unlikely for the bill to be voted on the floor this year. In Massachusetts, the state’s bill could be voted on and sources have indicated it would likely succeed, but getting it to a vote this year amid the pandemic remained undetermined.
“This legislation, the passage of this legislation, doesn't result in more people dying. It results in fewer people suffering,” Mr Diaz said, who has spoken with legislators in both New York and Massachusetts.
Opponents of medical aid in dying often cite religious reasons or concerns the passage of a medical aid in dying bill could lead to abuse.
Proponents argue the bills include safeguards to protect terminally ill patients from being abused or coerced into taking the medication. These safeguards include the requirement for two physicians to sign off on the prescription and for the patient to administer the drug themselves.
Another argument opponents make is the possibility patients take the medication too early, closing any chance a person might have to recover or spend more time with their loved ones. But in Ms Maynard’s case, though she was prescribed the medication in May, she waited until November to take the drug.
“The goal is always to live as long as you possibly can, right? The goal is there's the hope that you don't have to take that medication. The only thing an individual is doing when they pursue having this option,” Mr Diaz said. “And I emphasize that word ‘option’. I can't say that word enough, because you know, it's an option."
A medical issue
Nationwide 74 per cent of Americans support end-of-life options for terminally ill patients, according to a Gallup poll published in May.
“This isn't, this isn't a political or religious issue. It's a medical issue,” Mr Diaz said. “So if a person is religious then and they're opposed, they would simply never apply for this. And it's totally appropriate, but Brittany refused to suffer because of somebody else's faith.”
Ms Maynard’s death was covered nationwide, igniting a conversation about medical aid in dying and the end-of-life options offered in each state.
Although the intention was not to become the face for the movement, Ms Maynard let the media into her world during her final weeks in an effort to help legislators understand why they should consider passing similar laws in their own states.
Now her husband carries her legacy with no firm idea for when his advocacy work for medical aid in dying could end.
“Brittany's story really isn't about death and dying in a sense. Death, one can say, is unremarkable because it's going to happen to each,” Mr Diaz said.
“Brittany’s story is really about life and living because it's what she did with the time that she had left, what she determined, what she decided she was going to do with her life,” he added. “She battled the chaos of that brain tumor. That's what makes her story so remarkable.”