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Robert Brehl: State-approved suicide is way too easy

  • June 1, 2018

June 17 will mark two years since Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) law received royal assent. 

And since then, more than 2,000 people in Canada have committed suicide with the help of doctors and nurse practitioners.

Last month, a good friend of mine witnessed his father choose this path and the story is quite astonishing and bewildering, especially for the family left behind. It’s also an indictment upon the ambiguity of the legislation and overzealous factions within the medical community.

Earlier this spring, my friend’s 91-year-old father fell at his seniors residence and was sent to hospital for evaluation. He was a little bruised, but not seriously injured or in pain.

Medical personnel advised physiotherapy to strengthen his legs to prevent future falls. But my friend’s dad explicitly decided against physiotherapy at his age.

He told the hospital doctor he was worn out and tired of living. Unaware of Canada’s MAiD legislation, the elderly man was delighted to hear the doctor tell him about medically-assisted suicide and the new law.

He was assessed and told by the doctor that he fit the loose criterion for medically-assisted death and all he needed was signatures from two non-family members who knew him and could attest to his mental faculties.

Charmed by this news, the man first asked his son to round up a couple of his friends to come to the hospital and sign the necessary forms. The family’s immediate reaction was shock. “Dad, I’m not going to ask any of my friends to do that.”

The father was persistent and asked his son to track down an elderly friend of his and ask him and the man’s wife to sign the forms. The son did this. But he also figured a second independent medical assessment would deem his father did not meet the conditions for MAiD. Two separate assessments are required under law.

“He was mentally sharp as ever and my sisters and I were not trying to talk him out of it but instead trying to get him to look at other alternatives like physio,” he told me. “Besides, he was not terminally ill and we thought the process was only for people in dire need so we figured the second assessment would overturn the first.”

A second medical assessment did indeed find that he qualified for suicide under MAiD rules. The nurse practitioner who did the assessment noted he had prostate cancer and a past aortic aneurism that would be included on the death certificate.

“But you can’t make the leap and positively say the prostate cancer or the aortic aneurism could cause imminent death,” said my friend’s wife, a registered nurse for 30 years.

To the family, both medical assessments appeared to liberally interpret the MAiD rules a bit too much. The Government of Canada website says this:

“To be considered as having a grievous and irremediable medical condition, you must meet all of the following criteria. You must:

  • have a serious illness, disease or disability;
  • be in an advanced state of decline that cannot be reversed;
  • experience unbearable physical or mental suffering from your illness, disease, disability or state of decline that cannot be relieved under conditions that you consider acceptable;
  • be at a point where your natural death has become reasonably foreseeable. This takes into account all of your medical circumstances and does not require a specific prognosis as to how long you have left to live.

“You do not need to have a fatal or terminal condition to be eligible for medical assistance in dying.” (Bold lettering from government website.)

His death was scheduled a few days after this second assessment.

The family again tried to get him to explore other avenues.

Nope, he said, it was his time to die and he was going to die. He believed there was nothing left to live for.

On the morning of the day he was scheduled to die, under law, the man was asked if he understood what was about to unfold.

His immediate answer was “Bye, bye.”

The nurse practitioner said that was not good enough and that he would have to verbalize in sentences that he understood. He did so and told his family it was not necessary for them to be in the room.

Shortly after, he was given three injections — the first to put him to sleep, the second to stop his breathing and the third to paralyze his body to make death as painless as possible.

The nurse practitioner, who mentioned several times about the multiple deaths she’d worked on, came out and told the family “he did really well.”

“That really bothered me,” the son said. “Really well at what? At dying when he didn’t have to die that day.”

My friend says the cold and clinical experience was like euthanizing your dog; maybe fewer tears because the family was upset with the father and angry at the system that promoted easy death over preserving life.

Death awaits us all. But surely the medical profession should relentlessly promote assistance and compassion, not quick death simply because someone is tired of living. 

It’s a very slippery slope.

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