After finding out she was dying of terminal brain cancer, Maynard made the difficult decision to leave the home she and her husband shared in Alamo, California, and move to a state where she could die on her terms under the auspices of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.
“My glioblastoma is going to kill me, and that’s out of my control,” she told PEOPLE in October 2014. “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”
Still, picking up and moving to another state was something she realized very few terminally ill people could do – which is why she went public with her story, partnering with the end-of-life choice group Compassion & Choices and became a fierce advocate for expanding the law nationwide in the last weeks of her life.
“There’s tons of Americans who don t have time or the ability or finances,” she told PEOPLE, “and I don’t think that’s right or fair.”
At the top of her priority list was getting the law passed in her home state. Last Oct. 5, Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law.
On Thursday, it finally took effect.
“For me, I’d say the primary feeling I have is I’m just immensely proud of Brittany,” Diaz, who spent most of last year pushing for the bill’s passage, tells PEOPLE, “of the conversation that Brittany started and the impact her voice made on what she described as just a basic human right.
Diaz says he spent the day sharing memories of Brittany with those who loved her the most.
“On days like this – when I reflect on her so much – I realize how much I miss her and wish she could be sitting here next to me and we both could be acknowledging the success of passing this law,” he says.
The implementation of the law came too late for advocates like former LAPD sergeant and trial attorney Christy O’Donnell, 47, who died in February at her Valencia, California, home after fighting for passage of the law for most of 2015.
Her daughter, Bailey Donorovich, has shied away from the media since her mother’s death, but posted a message on her mother’s Facebook page late Thursday acknowledging the historic day.
“Today is the day that my mom fought so hard for so that California would allow its citizens to have the choice of dying with dignity when being diagnosed with such a horrible disease,” she wrote.
“Unfortunately, four months ago she passed away without being able to have the option that would have saved her many days of suffering,” she wrote. “However, she made a huge impact on society so those faced with this horrible disease and the many others have the ability to choose. It give me amazing comfort that now many families and patients will not have to go through the traumatic experience that we did. Thank you to everyone who has been involved as well. Miss her everyday, but she will always be an inspiration.
For Jay Watts, Christy’s brother, the day was a little bittersweet as well.
“I’m of course extremely proud of the effort and dedication Christy put into enabling thousands of terminally ill people have a real choice without resorting to moving away from friends, family and loved ones,” he tells PEOPLE.
“Though Christy did live to see the bill passed,” he says, “I’m somewhat saddened by the fact that she wasn’t able to see this day when it’s actually available to help real people.”
Opponents of the law acted quickly.
The Life Legal Defense Foundation filed a lawsuit to stop the implementation of the law, and the Patients Rights Action Fund has launched a new watchdog website in response to the new law in California – a place to collect stories of what they call the mistakes and abuses of offering end-of-life medication.
“This watchdog mechanism is urgent because of the immense dangers where assisted suicide is legal,” Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, which is partnering with the Patients Rights Action Fund, tells PEOPLE.
“Given the pressures from our broken, profit-driven health-care system, the risk of elder abuse, the fact of misdiagnosis, the lack of safeguards and investigation and oversight, many people stand to be harmed from this new law – many more than may be helped,” she says. “But the system is rigged to avoid exposing the problems, so outside monitoring is urgently needed.”