Death with dignity: Who gets to decide?

Death with dignity: Who gets to decide?
Death with dignity: Who gets to decide?

Brittany Maynard, aged 29 years, made headlines when her desire to ‘die with dignity' became public. Maynard was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the deadliest form of brain cancer.

At the time of diagnosis, Maynard was a healthy, vibrant, newlywed who began to suffer severe, debilitating headaches. While the average life expectancy for someone with GBM is 14 months, Maynard was given just six months, and told those six months would become increasingly grueling and painful.

Instead of allowing herself to die an agonizing death, Maynard has chosen to end her life on her own terms, deciding that November 1, two days after her husband's birthday, will be the day.

Maynard and her family moved from California to Oregon so she would be able to die with dignity, an act that allows terminally ill patients to chose when they would like to die and to prevent them from dying in agony. Oregon is just one of five states to allow this.

This story has exploded all over the news and social media, with people forming sides and arguing vehemently over "what is right". Those opposed to Maynard's decision argue her actions constitute suicide, with some arguing they too were given terminal diagnoses, only to improve and go on to lead happy, healthy lives. Some are saying it is a cop-out, and there is a lack of faith and hope that there could be improvement.

The other side is saying Maynard is facing reality and that she does not want to suffer, she does not want her family to see her suffer, and the chances of her ever improving are slim to none. Therefore, she should not have to suffer and it is her right to decide when she should end her life. 

In Maynard's own words (from CNN):

I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity. My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don't deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?

As for me, what do I think? I think that I cannot choose a side. I have been fortunate enough not to have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and therefore I am unable to decide who is right.

As a very religious person, I do believe in miracles, I do believe in faith, and I strongly believe in the power of prayer. Therefore, if I was given the same diagnosis, I do not think I would make the same decision, but that is me. It is my personal belief, and I do not feel that I can impose it on someone who has a terminal diagnosis, because I am not in their shoes. 

I will tell you what I do know. I know that Maynard is only a few years older than me. I know that I will use her story to remind myself about how life can change in an instant. I know that her story has reminded me to tell my family just how much I love them, to appreciate every moment with friends, and every hug from my niece and nephew. I know that because of her, I will be thankful for today.

Jillian Knowles, MMS, PA-C, is an emergency medicine physician assistant in the Philadelphia area.

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