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The woman who made Vermont's medical aid in dying law more accessible just ended her life

A woman with a head scarf smiles
Rodrique Ngowi
/
Associated Press File
Lynda Shannon Bluestein, seen here during an interview in the living room of her Bridgeport, Connecticut home on Feb. 28, 2023, sued Vermont in order to access medical aid in dying. The lawsuit led Vermont to permanently change its law.

Lynda Bluestein, a Connecticut resident and longtime advocate for medical aid in dying, passed away Thursday morning at a property in the Northeast Kingdom, surrounded by family. She took a legal prescription of a lethal medication to hasten her death.

Bluestein's activism played a pivotal role in lawmakers' decision last year to amend Vermont's medical aid in dying legislation, known as Act 39.

After Bluestein received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer and fallopian tube cancer, she decided she wanted to be able to access medical aid in dying. It isn't legal in Connecticut, so she turned to Vermont.

"The last thing she said to me was to make sure that people understand that while she's so grateful to the access to our law in Vermont, and what we were able to help her achieve, that she really believes that everybody deserves to have this right in their own backyard."
Diana Barnard, a Middlebury doctor whose patient was Lynda Bluestein

Under Vermont state law, a person wishing to access life-ending medication must follow strict procedures, including getting two doctors to confirm a terminal diagnosis of six months or less to live. Until last year, patients also had to be legal residents of Vermont.

In 2022, Bluestein and her doctor, Diana Barnard of Middlebury, sued Vermont over the law's residency requirement. She discussed the lawsuit and her advocacy on Vermont Edition in 2022.

"I love my life, I don't want to die, but I don't want to suffer at the end of my life," she said. "I'd like to choose how my final days are going to look, and that's why I am seeking out this change in Vermont's residency requirements."

She reached a settlement with state officials the following year, becoming the first non-resident to be granted access to medical aid in dying in the Green Mountain State.

"Lynda was a really special person," Barnard told Vermont Public. "And when it came to this issue, her ability — not only to do what was right for her, but to want to make this option available for everybody — was really quite remarkable."

Barnard last spoke to her patient two days ago.

"The last thing she said to me was to make sure that people understand that while she's so grateful to the access to our law in Vermont, and what we were able to help her achieve, that she really believes that everybody deserves to have this right in their own backyard," Barnard said.

More from Brave Little State: The complexities of medical aid in dying in Vermont

Vermont is one of 10 states and the District of Columbia where medical aid in dying is legal.

Bluestein and Barnard's lawsuit prompted lawmakers to permanently remove the residency requirement from the law. In May 2023, Vermont became the first state in the country to officially allow non-residents to access medical aid in dying. (Oregon is also no longer enforcing its residency requirement.)

Barnard is aware of other out-of-state patients who accessed and used life-ending medication in Vermont prior to Bluestein's death on Thursday.

She and other Vermont doctors who are willing to prescribe for medical aid in dying have fielded an increase in requests for care from out-of-staters since the law was amended.

A hotline for people seeking more information on medical aid in dying in Vermont has seen a "quadrupling" of calls, according to Betsy Walkerman, the president of Patient Choices Vermont, which operates the hotline.

Walkerman said Bluestein's legacy will live on in Vermont.

"She was a force in so many ways," Walkerman said. "I have the highest appreciation and respect for her advocacy and her strength."

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Corrected: January 5, 2024 at 10:24 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the day Lynda Bluestein died. She died on Thursday.
Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.