What I Learned from Brittany
EXCLUSIVE People EXCLUSIVE
PEOPLE staff writer Nicki Egan first wrote about Brittany Maynard in a story published on People.com Oct 6. In addition to two telephone interviews with Maynard, Egan also spoke with Maynard’s mother, Debbie Ziegler, and husband, Dan Diaz, as part of her ongoing coverage of this emotional story. Below, Egan reflects on the Brittany she came to know.
It’s hard to believe that just a month ago I spoke with Brittany Maynard for the first time. And now she’s gone.
It was not an easy decision for her to go public, but she so passionately believed death with dignity should be an option for terminal patients that she put herself out there. “As much as I’m very introverted and hesitant to give interviews, when the opportunity presented itself I had to do it,” she told me in our first interview Oct. 3. During that conversation, she told me about her life of activity and adventure—about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, running half marathons and traveling the world. She wept when she spoke about the devastation her passing would bring her mother—”I’m an only child”—stepfather and husband, with whom she had hoped to start a family.
It didn’t take long to get a clear picture of the kind of person Brittany was: fearless, independent, strong, with a caring heart. But she had a fragile side. Putting herself in the public eye was painful because she was self-conscious about her appearance. The steroids she was taking to control the inflammation in her brain had bloated her to the point where she no longer recognized herself. She was in tears during our photo shoot but still went through with it because she wanted to get her message out.
She grew frustrated with media outlets when they got the facts wrong or misreported what she said. “The media is … making up LIES that I will not pass on the date of my choice,” she wrote on her personal Facebook page Oct. 30, after a video she had made two weeks earlier was portrayed by some as her having changed her mind. “I did NOT say that.”
Far from giving up too easily—as some accused her of doing—she was still searching for a possible cure, even as she knew from all her research that there was none and even as she and her husband, Dan, went for sessions with a counselor who works with terminal patients and their families. “There are mornings,” she told me, “I wake up and wish it was a bad dream.”
All this came through to me loud and clear—as did Brittany’s reasons for wanting to end her life on her terms. She wanted to spare herself and her family the horror of watching her lose control of her mind and her body. Already suffering agonizing headaches and terrifying seizures, she feared being in so much pain that no amount of morphine could help. She wanted peace.
I learned a lot from Brittany. Not only did she raise my awareness, she also showed me she knew how to live long before she knew she was dying. She refused to let media interviews cut into the precious time she had left with her loved ones—keeping them short and limited. The week her first video came out, she was on a five-day, four-night trip to the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon with her family, and she pushed off some television interviews to the following week. Her final days were spent with her loved ones, enjoying her time outside as much as she could and walking her beloved dogs Charley and Bella with her family. And when she ended her life on Nov. 1, she did it just as she planned—in her own bed, with the people she loved most gathered around her.
“I think anybody that’s impacted by a major tragedy like this … you begin to see the beauty in each day,” she told me. “But I really tried to do that anyway. Beyond illness, no matter who you are, it’s important to slow down and appreciate what’s good in your life.”