Reflecting on doctor-assisted death in Canada

Something happened today that I thought would never happen!

At 92 years of age I have asked the Registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to reinstate my medical license which I reluctantly gave up at the age of 87.

Why? Because of a shameful and despicable event in Alberta this week.

Ms. S, a resident of Calgary, was dying of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Totally paralyzed and close to choking to death in her own mucus, she requested doctor assisted death. Justice Sheilah Martin of the Alberta court decided that, with the consent of two doctors and no psychiatric assessment, Ms. S was granted the right to proceed. Justice Martin has my congratulations.

What is deplorable and reprehensible is that this dying patient had to be transported from Calgary to British Columbia to peacefully die by lethal injection.

It appears that not one doctor in Calgary was willing to offer this humane service. Dr. Wiebe, who ultimately assisted in her death, was located by a network in the Netherlands.

Dying is never easy but ALS is a horrific malady.

Inch by inch paralysis gradually and insidiously spreads throughout the entire body, and its progress is as sure as night follows day. The final phase is total paralysis.

Patients are literally ‘locked’ inside their bodies. What makes it more terrifying is that the mind remains intact.

Death occurs when respiratory muscles finally become more and more paralyzed, patients cannot cough, and they drown in their own mucus.

It’s as close to hell as anyone can imagine. How any physician, regardless of religion, race or colour, can stand by and watch this grueling struggle hour after hour and decline to do anything to ease the suffering, boggles my imagination.

One of Harvard’s most distinguished medical professors once remarked, “The secret of caring for the patient is caring for the patient.”

But after years of caring for his own patients he also developed a devastating illness. Just before he committed suicide he left a note saying, “It’s wrong that society forced me to end my life this way.”

I have often criticized the legal profession.

But in this case Justice Martin refused to allow this case to be defeated by technical or legalistic grounds. And she fought off others in the legal and medical community who opposed her decision. After all, what sense did it make that others wanted another psychiatric assessment while this courageous woman on the day of her death could hardly breathe?

Ms. S has now entered history as being the first judicially authorized assisted death in Canada.

Now the Federal Government has a few months to draft a set of rules to be followed by doctors willing to participate in assisted death.

I have stressed in a previous column that this issue should be a matter of personal choice.

But with personal choice also comes responsibility.

This means stating clearly whether you say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to assisted death. The only sure way that families, doctors and the courts learn of your choice is by stating this decision in a Living Will while you are of sane mind.

Be sure to sign it and make copies for your family, doctor and lawyer.

As an added precaution I’ve also suggested that people can wear a wrist or neck piece stating that you are for or against assisted death. Surely this should satisfy those who are so opposed to it.

Will the College renew my medical license so I’m able to assist in this one specific purpose?

I hope it will until other doctors inform Dying with Dignity Canada that they are available to patients who request a peaceful assisted death.

I believe Hippocrates would agree that it is irrational and inhumane to see anyone drown in their own mucus.

Then to add insult to injury to force that person, already near death, to be transferred to another province for this service.

Shame on the medical profession if this tragic scenario is repeated.

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