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Live Healthy, Atlanta! Thought Leader Uncategorized

On Brittany Maynard, Thanksgiving, and how facing our mortality head-on this “Movember” is a leadership gift to our families.

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

Thanksgiving is next week. It is a time to celebrate our blessings and our loved ones. In the midst of love and life, I am reminded of a family that will mark their first Thanksgiving without one of their loved ones.

Brittany Maynard was 29, newly married and hoping to start a family. But that changed when severe headaches sent her to the doctor’s office. The diagnosis she received was improbable and heartbreaking. Brittany had a terminal brain tumor. She began planning for her death.

Mortality is a thorny subject. We ignore and avoid discussing death, even (or especially) with the ones we’re closest to. We spend time preparing our wills in the hopes that we can leave our assets as gifts to our family. Especially in this age of modern medical advances, we need to prepare for our exit from the world, too.

Brittany Maynard’s options were limited. Full brain radiation may have added a few weeks to her life, but it could not save her. Her family would have watched as her hair singed off and her scalp became covered in burns. Her quality of life would have been destroyed. The death she faced was awful. She described it this way: “I considered passing away in hospice care at my San Francisco Bay-area home. But even with palliative medication, I could develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive, and motor loss of virtually any kind. Because the rest of my body is young and healthy, I am likely to physically hang on for a long time even though cancer is eating my mind. I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months. And my family would have had to watch that.”

Circumstance led Brittany to plan for her death. She decided what interventions she wanted and what she wanted for her family. She and her husband left California and moved to Oregon so she could use the Death with Dignity Act. In early November, she passed away peacefully, in her home, with her mother and her husband by her side.

The majority of Americans have not considered the way they wish to exit this world. A Coping with Cancer study found that two-thirds of terminal patients had had no discussion with their doctors about end of life care. On average, those same patients were only four months from death.

Modern American health care is excellent at extending your life, but this is a double-edged sword at the end of our lives. We must decide what interventions we want when the end comes. If we don’t make our wishes known, our families will be left to make heart-wrenching decisions in the midst of grief.

A friend of mine was in just such a situation when her stepfather was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. She and her mother had to decide whether to replace the man’s pacemaker battery or not. A family dispute ensued, and the pacemaker’s battery was replaced. The family suffered, as did the man, emotionally and financially, in the 18 months he lived in a nursing home, curled, most of that time, in a fetal position. He would not have wanted that ending. But he had not made his wishes known, legally, with an Advanced Directive.

As the men’s health awareness initiative – Movember – draws to a close, I am thinking of family leaders  — men and women – taking charge of their health and modeling healthy behavior, and of our extending that healthy behavior all the way to making our end-of-life wishes known, and making this conversation a part of the family holiday gathering,

I am also thinking of Brittany Maynard and her family, and imagining that while they will miss her dearly on this first Thanksgiving without her, that they are grateful for her courage and bravery to face her mortality head-on.

Facing our mortality head on, and sharing what we want, is a gift we give to our families.

Here are a few resources to get you started: 

Spare Your Loved Ones by Making Your Final Wishes Known

Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End a new book by Atul Gawande


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