A.B., the first person in Ontario to be granted a physician-assisted death, hoped he wouldn't be the last

When A.B., a terminally ill 81-year-old grandfather, became the first person in Ontario to be granted a physician-assisted death, there was not a dry eye in the courtroom. The man—a self-proclaimed lover of life, poet, and avid sports fan—had been given the “right of human dignity” after his advanced stage lymphoma left him a “skeleton of the man [he] was.”

From his affidavit, it was clear that A.B. was a man who had led a wonderful, rich life, “filled with many activities” like reading, watching games with his children, and “being a bit of a romantic.” When he was first diagnosed with advanced stage lymphoma in 2012, he fought back with the hope of recovery. But when the pain became too intolerable and his prognosis bleak, A.B. exercised his right—his choice—to manage his own death.

Physician-assisted dying will finally become legal across Canada on June 6, 2016. Until then, those suffering from unendurable and incurable illnesses, and seeking physician-assisted dying, will have to apply to their provincial superior court for a constitutional exemption.

A.B., who had undergone several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and had started seeing a palliative-care physician in 2016, met the qualifications outlined by the Supreme Court. He was of competent mind and clearly consented to his choice; he had a “grievous and irremediable” illness”; and his condition caused him to experience “intolerable suffering,” which could not be alleviated by available treatment in a way considered acceptable to him.

After Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Perell delivered the emotional decision on March 17, A.B. released a final statement pleading with the federal government to introduce new legislation soon so others can avoid the painful application process he experienced.

“My only regret in these last months is that my family and I have had to expend what little energy I have left to fight this court battle,” A.B. wrote in the statement delivered by his lawyer. “My wish is that our government will see fit to make permanent changes in the law so that no other family will have to do this ever again.”

In total, A.B.’s application took three weeks to be heard and approved—a possible painful lifetime for a man who lived in a tremendous amount of pain and could no longer sit or stand up without assistance. His was the third case in Canada outside Quebec where an application for physician-assisted death was allowed—the first being “Ms. S” in Alberta and another in Manitoba, A.B. that was granted on March 15. In Ontario, A.B.’s lawyer said there are more cases pending.

Watch: A.B.'s lawyer reads a statement written by the terminally ill Ontario man

“This decision allows me, with the support of caring doctors, to die with dignity. I am thankful I no longer have to live under a cloud of stigma and shame that I feel as I slowly and painfully lose control,” A.B. wrote in his statement. “I believe firmly in the right to die with dignity and that it is a right that should be available to all Canadians to exercise according to their circumstances and beliefs.”

Less than 24 hours after the courts approved his request for a physician-assisted death, A.B. passed away “in peace and dignity” surrounded by his beloved family. In their statement, the family said, “In death, he has been restored to the strong, vibrant and dignified man we knew before cancer and extraordinary pain brought him to his knees. Knowing that his wishes were carried out takes away the sting of his death.

“It was his most fervent hope that our government will take the steps necessary to ensure that all Canadians can gain this right—without having to battle in the courts—should they choose to exercise it according to their own circumstances and beliefs. […] In his memory, we will do everything we can to continue to make this a reality which includes making certain that the legislation to allow physician-assisted death is enshrined—quickly and permanently.”