He was a vibrant man, a brilliant and accomplished scientist, an ocean lover, a Korean Bar-B-Q and taco stand aficionado, an attentive husband, and an energetic father to two young boys. He was also my good friend who had the rare quality of truly listening. We believed he had a long life ahead of him, for he was only forty-two years old. But life suddenly stopped on a quiet fall afternoon when he was hit with a devastating diagnosis: Glioblastoma Multiforme, the deadliest form of brain cancer. The prognosis was grim and frightening, six months to live, maybe a little longer. He chose to fight, doing everything possible, surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, gamma-ray therapy, clinical trials, even wearing a cancer helmet that delivered electric current to his brain to inhibit tumor growth. The list was endless, but never once did he consider halting the fight, bravely enduring each painful treatment, while continually searching for a miracle cure. He battled boldly to stay for his family, suffering immeasurably. Yet he could not be saved.
It was during my friend’s courageous struggle that I read the story of Brittany Maynard, the beautiful young woman who was also diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and chose to end her life through Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. When I saw Brittany’s exquisite face, her magnetizing green eyes staring from the cover of People magazine with the headline, “A Terminal Cancer Patient’s Controversial Choice: My Decision To Die,” my heart broke before I even read the article. Brittany was so young, only twenty-nine, newly married, with hopes of starting her own family. She too searched desperately for a miracle cure, but when there was none to be found, she decided she would not die an agonizing death, but would die how she chose. As California did not have a Death with Dignity Act, she moved to Oregon to complete her journey, dying peacefully surrounded by her husband, mother, step-father and best friend.
The same diagnosis, two different decisions. Each so valiant when one stops to think, REALLY think, what it would feel like to hear those terrifying words, “You have six months to live.” What would you do?
California now affords individuals a choice. In adopting a Death with Dignity law, California is the fourth state to do so, following Oregon, Washington and Vermont. California’s End of Life Option Act went into effect on June 9, 2016 and will remain in effect until January 1, 2026. The act is very extensive (codified in Health and Safety Code Sections 443-443.22), but in simple terms it allows an adult (18 years or older) who has been determined by his/her attending physician to be suffering from a terminal disease to make a request for a life-ending drug. A terminal disease is defined as “an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months.”
As would be expected, the act sets forth strict requirements of the attending physician and patient, and requires completion of mandatory written forms. An individual must be a resident of California, but surprisingly there is not any minimum residency requirement. One may establish residency through possession of a California Driver’s License or other California issued identification, registering to vote in California, providing evidence of owning or leasing property in California, or filing of a California tax return for the most recent tax year.
Although the act requires the individual to self-administer the life-ending drug, the resulting death is not considered a suicide. This powerful provision ensures there will be no effect on life insurance, health insurance, or annuity polices as the death is considered a natural death from the underlying disease.
As I write this I am acutely aware that today is the one-year anniversary of my friend’s passing. I can still feel his light and courage. I also think of Brittany Maynard’s last request to her husband and mother that they continue her fight until all states have a Death with Dignity Act. Both beautiful souls, both who had wanted so badly to live.