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Brittany Maynard and the Right to Die: An Open Letter from a State That Denies It

| October 21, 2014

The author's mother, Wylma Irene Mitchell, who died in February 2010 of breast cancer, but not on her own terms. (© Laureen Kornel)

The author’s mother, Wylma Irene Mitchell, at the Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings historic homestead in Cross Creek, Fla. Mitchell died in February 2010 of breast cancer, but not on her own terms.
(© Laureen Kornel)

Brittany Maynard is the 29-year-old Californian newlywed who was given six months to live earlier this year after being diagnosed with brain cancer. She decided to move to Oregon and end her life on Nov. 1. Oregon is one of just five states where a form of assisted suicide is legal. New Mexico, Montana, Vermont and Washington are the others. “I do not want to die,” Maynard wrote. “But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms.” Laureen Kornel, a Flagler Beach resident who lost her mother to breast cancer four years ago, wrote Maynard the following letter as part of a broader plea.

By Laureen Kornel

You don’t know me nor do I know you. I learned about you and your illness about a week ago. I’m not one to participate much with social media or sharing my opinions publicly. I usually keep to myself. I’d rather be anonymous. But I am compelled to write you this note because I want you to know that I support you.

Laureen Kornel

Laureen Kornel

First I want to tell you I am sorry that you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. And I am also sorry that you have been judged critically and harshly for your system of beliefs by some. In the end we all face our own mortality, though not usually at age 29, as a newlywed with what we thought was our whole life ahead of us. Facing one’s own mortality is never easy anyway, no matter how old a person is. And second, I want to share with you why it is I am hopeful that you will transition from this life on to wherever that may be on your own terms–with grace and dignity.

After two years of illness and a crappy quality of life in 2010, my mother died a painful death due to breast cancer that had metastasized to her bones. I spent four months in Edmonton, Canada, watching her decline. During those days, my mother and I agonized over how bad the pain and suffering would become. I asked her doctor, “What shall we do when the pain becomes too much?”

“More medication for the pain,” was her doctor’s reply. Our worst nightmares came true. In particular, the last two weeks or so were like torture for both of us–watching her choke on her own vomit as she tried to catch her breath, and when my mother could no longer speak it didn’t matter because I knew what she was thinking anyway. Her eyes begged me to help her end her life. Though I fought hard for the doctors to help us end her suffering, the doctors stood by idly, making assessments, watching the suffering, and doing virtually nothing. Sometimes no amount of morphine can make the pain and suffering stop.

Wylma Mitchel was 68 when she died. Click on the image for larger view. (© Laureen Kornel)

Wylma Mitchel was 68 when she died. She’d worked for Edmonton Institution, a men’s maximum-security prison, as a correctional officer for 25 years. Click on the image for larger view.
(© Laureen Kornel)

So I watched her suffer in starvation and dehydration until she essentially drowned in her own fluids, until finally her organs shut down and her heart came to a stop. (For those of you who don’t know, this is what can happen in cases like this. My apologies for killing anyone’s innocence.) I know I’m not the only one, that there are millions like me and my mom–those who have unnecessarily suffered an agonizing painful death, and those who have been powerless to help. I still have post-traumatic stress not only from watching her body wither away in great pain (both emotional and physical), but because I failed in helping her meet her expectations. I was her only voice, and I could do nothing to help her end her suffering.

“And when I reach the end of the pathway,” my mother had written in a poem five years before her death, “Let it be with justice, truth and peace./And let it be for all who follow.” My mother was not afforded the right to plan her own last days and death with truth or peace.

In 2013, my husband and I made the mistake of having our elderly cat Leo’s teeth cleaned at the vet’s office. This procedure involves anesthesia. Leo never fully recovered as sometimes happens with geriatric animals and people. We carefully tried to revive him for two weeks or so, until we realized he would not make a full recovery from the anesthesia. My husband and I agreed that he was suffering. Together we made the decision to end his life. I took him to the vet who administered the prescribed drugs. I cried for him the same as I cried for my mother. But my tears for Leo were much different than my tears for my mother, for whom I still cry today. My tears for Leo were over the loss of his life. My tears for my mother are because she unnecessarily suffered an agonizing death that was out of her control. She was not afforded the right to choose her own exit strategy.

Leo. Click on the image for larger view. (© Laureen Kornel)

Leo. Click on the image for larger view.
(© Laureen Kornel)

My mother would have loved to have had the opportunity to plan out her death on her own terms, given her certain terminal prognosis. Hard as it would have been, I would have done anything I could to help her plan it. How is it possible in this day and age that my own mother–a fellow human being–suffered in great pain and agony the way she did, yet I was able to help my cat end his own suffering in one short afternoon? I don’t suffer from post traumatic stress every time I think about terminating my cat’s life. Leo’s death doesn’t haunt me the way my mother’s death haunts me.

I can make it through each day, each month and each year easier now when I think about my mother’s death, but I will never get over it. The memories of her suffering are as vivid today as they were back in 2010 when I stood at her bedside along with my Uncle Jim, as life painstakingly drained out of her. I wonder what will happen when it’s my turn. If I am diagnosed with a terminal illness, will I have the right to die with dignity?

I just want you to know, Brittany, how courageous I think you are and that I will be thinking of you on November 1. I wonder if I would have the guts to pick a date if I were given the same certain prognosis. I am hoping that whatever happens, it will remain your choice as to how and when you choose to die, as you have, given your terminal illness and based on your doctor’s prognosis. I hope your transition out of this world will be peaceful for you and your loved ones in accordance with your own plan. And let it be for all who follow.

S. Laureen Kornel, a senior planner with the city of Ormond Beach and a member of Flagler County’s Planning Board, lives in Flagler Beach. Reach her by email here.

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5 Responses for “Brittany Maynard and the Right to Die: An Open Letter from a State That Denies It”

  1. rickg says:

    What a moving piece… I knew Ms. Kornel for a short time while she helped with the formation of the Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail. She was a professional and took public service to heart. I am so sorry to hear about her mother. My wife had a bout with breast cancer about 3 years ago and was successful in kicking its ass but it was an extraordinary ordeal. I have no idea what Laureen and her Mother went through but it could not have been any worse. Human beings have no choice to be born but they should have a choice as to when their life should end. Very touching story and Leo’s was touching as well. I know that both your Mom and Leo are in a better place. Thank you for sharing your thoughts

  2. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    In 2014 it is simply amazing that as the authors painful example illustrates, pets are treated to more humane end of life care than human beings. This needs to change.

  3. A.S.F. says:

    Ain’t that the truth, Johhny! But, unfortunately, nothing new. There was an ASPCA in America before any child protective services ever existed. I don’t know why it is that we have more of an inclination to feel compassion for animals than we do our fellow human beings (not that we shouldn’t feel compassion for animals.)

  4. Jose Caniusi says:

    Just one more reason why God hates religion.

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