I am a mother of three who grew up in a sleepy retirement community on the beautiful Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. I was brought up on a farm by my grandparents and great-grandparents who raised me on Christian values. Naturally, I developed a love of nature and compassion for animals, which made it hard for me when the time came to say goodbye.
However, I learned early in life what compassion truly meant. When one of my favourite chickens, or a sick baby horse, or my beloved best friend (a dog named Spot) was suffering we ended their pain quickly. I often think we are much more kind to our animals than we are to each other. Those that are most outspoken about "natural death" have yet to face it for themselves. Nor do they consider the multiple medications that have prolonged life well past what is natural. Compassion simply isn't profitable.
I am now a nurse's aide in a complex care facility specializing in geriatrics. I work predominately in the Dementia Unit of this facility. Among the many diseases and ailments that plague the elderly, progressed dementia has to be one of the most heartbreaking. As their brains die, these people slowly lose control over every aspect of their lives and eventually completely lose their identity. There are the rare few who are blissfully unaware of the indignities they suffer on a daily basis but most become very frustrated as they lose the ability to communicate or even understand their needs.
But there are many diseases I have witnessed that I fear more than dementia. ALS causes you to slowly lose control of voluntary movement as your nerve cells die, while remaining completely aware. Essentially you are trapped in a frozen and failing body, helpless until you eventually die of choking or respiratory failure. Huntington's causes brain cell death leading to loss of cognitive function and control of emotions, affecting your ability to make decisions, talk, swallow, and walk. With Parkinson's your central nervous system degenerates causing tremors, rigidity, insomnia, and eventually dementia in most cases. Excruciating contractures and pressure sores often plague people with these diseases also.
Why must patients suffer?
A few of people I have taken care of particularly shaped my views on what I want to happen when it is my time to face my death. One experience to be forever imprinted in my mind was a man who was dying of terminal brain cancer. In a matter of months he went from a brilliant and talented human being with a passion for life, love, and laughter to a violent and emaciated vegetable. He suffered tremendously and his end was truly tragic. What for? His death was not preventable but his suffering was. Another man I had met in the community and he was an amazing flute player with an incredible life story. His wife had passed many years ago, and he suffered from depression. As with many, music is therapy for the soul. He lived to play his flute for people. Some time passed before he could no longer thrive on his own and sadly when I crossed paths with him again he could no longer play. COPD and congestive heart failure had taken his breath away. I was with him the night he drowned in his own fluids and that memory will always haunt me.
My great-grandma was my closest companion as a child and the most influential person in my life. At 89 she is in good health and still able to drive, golf, and spend time with my children. I have witnessed her now-10-year struggle with helping my grandpa, who has Alzheimer's. I can see the toll it is taking on her. She always worries. He is now in facility and rarely leaves his bed. He is constantly on antibiotics for infections. He recently fell and broke his back and is now in a lot of pain. Recently in a moment of lucidness he was able to joke with me, "Well I am still on the right side of the ground." he answered my "How are you?" That was the man I knew, always joking. But then he added, "But this is not living." He's right, there is no quality of life left for him. Some days he doesn't recognize the woman who he loved, the woman who goes to visit him nearly every day, the woman who exhausts herself doing his laundry and making him eat, and who faithfully answers the same questions day after day. As dark as my world will be without her light, I secretly hope that before her health fails that her blood sugar will drop too low in the night and that she just won't wake up one day. I cannot stand the thought of her enduring what those I have cared for have gone through, what grandpa has gone through. I want her end to be quick and merciful.
Choice is a basic human right
I do not believe assisted dying is the right choice for every one who is facing constant pain and suffering or a terminal illness but I do believe that the choice needs to be a basic human right. I know my grandma wouldn't choose it for reasons of her own. However, those who would prefer their inevitable death comes sooner than later shouldn't have to resort to starvation, or to a violent and often unsuccessful attempt at suicide, or be forced to leave their home and loved ones to die in another country. If your personal or religious beliefs conflict with assisted dying then apply that to your life, not to mine. This is my life and my body and I should have the right to choose how I want to die.
The journey of life and death is a very personal one and only the individual should have the right to decide his or her path. I am grateful that the Canadian government is now listening to the majority of its citizens. One night after a hard day at work I became overwhelmed with emotion. I felt the need to communicate to my family how I wanted to meet my death when the time comes. I know I am young, not even 30, but I also know how fast life can change. What if I got hit by a car tomorrow and became tetraplegic? Would I want to live? Each person would answer this question differently, but for me the answer would be a definite no. I want to be proactive and to make my wishes clear while I am deemed fit to do so.
I will leave you with a poem I wrote to my loved ones:
When my time to leave this world draws near,
My love please don't try to keep me here.
This is my way to make sure you know,
When there is no living left let me go.
If I can no longer recognize those I cherish,
I call on you to help me perish.
If a stroke shall render my body broken,
Don't leave me trapped with my wish unspoken.
If I cannot eat don't force food into me;
Please set me free with my dignity.
Don't let them prolong my suffering with drugs,
When all I need are your kisses and hugs.
I will understand if you cry;
It won't be easy to watch me die.
But these eyes have seen those who hold on,
Long after their spirit is completely gone.
A tragic end in pain and fear,
That is not what I want my dear.
I have accepted that this vessel has an expiry date;
There is a reason mortality becomes our fate.
So don't be sad when I depart,
For it is only a new start and you will always have my heart.
Corinea Woloschuk is a nurse's aide in geriatrics in British Columbia.