Long overdue: physician-assisted death

The toughest day for me was not the day my mother died, but a week earlier when I said ‘Good Bye’ to her for the last time.

My mom had terminal cancer. She had fought her breast cancer successfully for a few years, and we had thought she had beaten it, but the insidious disease lingered in her body and vengefully re-emerged. It had metastasized to her bones, her brain, and just about everywhere else.

Once cancer takes hold of a body and spreads throughout it, there is little a person can do but manage the pain and make the most of the time they have left.

Mom was receiving radiation treatment and taking heavy medications to reduce the extreme pain caused primarily by the cancer in her bones. This allowed her to maintain a minimum quality of life at the Riverview Health Centre, where family and friends could visit and bring small measures of enjoyment to her remaining days. But when she suffered another seizure, caused by the cancer in her brain, her desire to continue on evaporated.

She was ready to die. Everything was organized: instructions were recorded on what to do with her modest estate, what to do with her body, what design to put on her grave marker, etc. But more importantly, she was mentally ready to die. The benefits of life no longer exceeded the costs.

Unfortunately, ending your life in a dignified way was not possible. Doctors could assist with ending a life, but because of perverted laws that prevent proper assisted death, they could only do it through a long, drawn out process that allowed the person to die “naturally”. This involved drugging the individual into unconsciousness, and removing their food supply so that they essentially starved to death over a period of time that could vary from a few days to as much as two weeks.

It’s a terrible thing, and far less humane then the alternative of a quick doctor assisted death. Thus, when my mom died a week after we said our good byes, it was a relief, not a tragedy.

It seems to me that the opposition to assisted death comes from two main camps: people with strong religious convictions, and activists for disabled and vulnerable people.

The first group are generally the same people who oppose gay marriage, the right to choose, and any other progressive social concepts; and seek to impose their rigid views on the rest of society. I don’t agree with their narrow views, but if I try hard enough I can put myself into their mindspace and sort of see where they’re coming from.

The disabled rights activists are more difficult for me to understand. Their opposition appears to be rooted in the irrational fear that the scope of assisted death will expand to include the involuntary extermination of anybody in a wheelchair. That vulnerable people will be coerced into dying to save those around them the trouble of taking care of them, and that the disabled “will now wonder if their doctors are coming with counsels of death”.

I find it frustrating that people want to force others to endure a drawn out and undignified end because of their own personal religious preferences or their unfounded fears of society descending into a heartless Logan’s Run-esque dystopia.

Doctors do not want to kill people and any new ability to assist in a death will not be taken casually. But doctors do want to help families, and they want to minimize pain and suffering. Clearly there is a balance that needs to be struck, but there is no balance in the current system. Thankfully the system may be about to change.

The recent unanimous Supreme Court ruling that opens the door to doctor-assisted death is a big step in the right direction. It does not make doctor-assisted death legal — It is up to the provinces and federal government to produce a regulatory framework to allow that happen – but it finally sets us on the right path. Perhaps within a year we’ll have sensible new laws that make a dignified physician-assisted death possible.

Having been through a situation where we were denied this benefit even though all were in agreement that it was the best course of action, I applaud those who pushed this cause forward, and the Supreme Court of Canada for ruling as it did. It comes far too late for my mother of course, but it will help many others and their suffering, terminally ill loved ones to take a path that makes a terrible event as painless as possible.


5 thoughts on “Long overdue: physician-assisted death

  1. I’m sorry for your loss and what your mother went through. When I was younger I watched my boyfriend and his family go through a similar process with his mom, who also had cancer, and reading this reminded me of how difficult “waiting it out” was for him and his siblings. I’m glad that there are options now.

    Thank you for sharing; this was deeply moving.

  2. This is the kind of powerful anecdote everyone should read. As a nurse who primarily works with old people I see this new vision as a very positive way to preserve dignity with humanity. Thanks for putting this out there.

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