Brittany Maynard was a young wife, at age 29, and she had a horrible disease: Glioblastoma Multiforme. She was articulate, and attractive, and we all felt badly that she suffered. She had headaches, memory loss and seizures, and she moved from California to Oregon, a state where physician-assisted suicide is legal.
She took her life, as she said she would, and the “Twitter-sphere” is all awash with sentiment about how she “died with dignity” and advanced the cause of the assisted suicide movement.
I would not presume to judge Brittany Maynard’s pain, or her suffering. I do, however, have judgments about what human dignity is about, and a certain knowledge that this woman’s pain, seizures and suffering could have been controlled with good palliative care, or hospice care.
I know this is so, because I render this care to hundreds of people every year. I know that with expert palliative care, pain and suffering is not a necessary consequence of disease, not even her disease.
There are times, albeit rare, when all our efforts short of sedating a person do not relieve his or her pain. But those are very rare times; perhaps once or twice in 500 patients this occurs.
When that does occur, we can still treat the patient with dignity, and we can offer sedation to the point where their suffering is alleviated if that is their choice.
Illness does not lessen dignity
Dignity, in my estimation, does not result because some other person judges your life worthy, or aesthetically pleasing, nor is it lost if a person deems you to be void of redeeming qualities or mired in unpleasantness. Dignity comes from the fact that we are created by an all-loving God.
That we can be treated in undignified ways is a certainty. But this is not due to a disease, or pain, or unpleasant circumstance. No, that is human judgment and behavior, which dares to place its own estimates of the worth of human life above that of our creator.
If this young woman had been in our hospice program, or our hospice home, she would have been treated with all the dignity that every person deserves. She would have had her seizures and pain controlled. She would have had the ongoing opportunity to touch many other people. She is quoted as having said, “Seize the day. What’s important to you? What do you care about? What matters? Pursue that, forget the rest.”
The sadness in all of this, is that because she feared pain, and feared seizures, and feared loss of memory, she apparently feared she would be seen as undignified. I know her pain and seizures could have been controlled.
While I do not have the power to preserve the memory of patients with neurologic disease, I do not believe that lessens their dignity.
Palliative care can add precious moments
Is it possible that she might have had more beautiful, precious, important moments in this world if she had not ended her life when she did? I believe it is highly likely.
Is it possible that with expert palliative care she could have taught us more about grace and dignity by shouldering the weight of her declining health, and allowing those of us in the palliative care community to do a better job of treating her, rather than rejecting hospice care? I believe so.
I have seen it innumerable times, in patients with far more advanced disease, even far more advanced Glioblastoma Multiforme, than was hers.
I mourn her loss. If her suicide somehow furthers the physician-assisted suicide movement, I mourn that as well. It distracts us from the focus of where dignity originates, and it perseverates the myth that pain is unavoidable.
Suicide remains a choice that is mired in the centeredness of self, cheapens our value as humans and sends the message that somehow to act on those ideals is superior to the choice that thousands make, which is to live their lives to the fullest, for as long God grants us, and never presumes to usurp that divine authority.
I believe it is a rare person who would feel it necessary to take their life if they knew their pain and suffering were able to be controlled, and that they would always be treated with the dignity that comes of being a child of God.
Peace and comfort are possible
Brittany Maynard said, “Seize the day. Live each day for what matters.”
I could not agree with her more. It is sad that she may not have felt how much more she might have mattered with even a few more days of life.
Brittany also said, “If you ever find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, I hope that you would at least be given the same choice and that no one tries to take it from you.”
No one can walk a mile in Brittany’s or your shoes, but know that if you find yourself with a terminal disease, even one as ugly as Glioblastoma, we will walk miles with you. We can prevent the pain. We can prevent the seizures. We believe each of us is beautiful because we are children of God.
You don’t lose dignity because you are ill. I have learned many beautiful lessons and seen many amazing things when life ends naturally, even in the very last moments.
God be with you, Brittany Maynard. May God be with us all.