Sylvia's story: My husband's assisted death was peaceful and completely on his own terms

Dr. Doug Henshaw lived a life full of colour and adventure. He was a brilliant surgeon and a pioneer in life — and in death. His decision to access medical assistance in dying in September 2016 made him one of the first Nova Scotians to choose this newly available option. In this special blog post, Doug's wife, Sylvia, writes about his incredible life and choice.

My husband of 40 years, Dr. Doug Henshaw, died on September 6, 2016, at the age of 84. He died the same way he lived — on his own terms.

He was born and educated in Edinburgh, Scotland. Following his schooling, he joined the Royal Air Force where he trained as a pilot and excelled at aerobatics. After gaining his wings, he converted onto jets.

Dr. Doug Henshaw in 1988, when he was president of the Medical Society of Nova Scotia.

He continued flying jet fighters on weekends while attending medical school at Edinburgh University. When Queen Elizabeth II presented new colours to 603 Squadron, Edinburgh, Doug was given the honour of being standard bearer and received the new flag from Her Majesty. Also during this time, he became the Scottish University fencing (foil) champion, and a member of the Scottish international fencing team.

In 1965, seeking new opportunities, Doug immigrated to Canada, settling in Berwick, Nova Scotia. He said he felt he had come home. He loved the rural setting of the Anapolis Valley, and the close proximity of the ocean.

Doug had a busy and active professional and personal life. As a general surgeon, he was one of the first in the province to do lumpectomies combined with radiation for breast cancer. He was also one of the first to train and perform endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeries. He was actively involved in medical politics both provincially and nationally, serving on several highly regarded boards and committees.

Doug in the early nineties.

His personal life was just as full. As a father of three, stepfather of two, and eventually, grandpa of eight, Doug was always active and constantly learning. He loved downhill skiing, sailing, building dinghies, gardening, wind surfing, scuba diving, woodworking, hiking, hunting, fishing and travelling. Following his retirement in 1996, we spent our summers sailing and our winters in Portugal and Europe, visiting our ever growing family.

But later in life, changes in Doug’s health stole his treasured independence. In 2007, he underwent quadruple coronary bypass surgery, which was followed by a stroke 15 months later. Then, in 2011, we learned he had Parkinson’s disease. Our family and friends say he aged almost overnight.

Doug was a man who lived on the edge, always looking for new adventure. I had known for many years he did not want to live with a chronic, debilitating illness. He was accustomed to being in control, and he always had an exit plan, should he feel his life become unbearable.

Doug was always active. Here he is skiing in Switzerland in 1973.

Around this time, we heard a radio program with a speaker from Dying With Dignity Canada. Doug heard for himself how the organization had been instrumental in helping a man experience death on his own terms. Doug contacted DWDC, read all the information he could find, and mapped out a plan to end his life when he was ready. This was both scary and empowering — scary for me and empowering for him. He was not a man to be afraid of death.

This was about five years before medical assistance in dying (MAID) became legal in Canada. Doug’s activities of daily living were being stolen by the progression of his disease. He suffered daily from pain in his back, due to collapsed vertebrae. He had difficulty balancing and walking, eating and speaking. He said one of his biggest losses was that of communication. His speech was soft, slow and often slurred. His mind was still sharp, but he was trapped by his body.

Doug and Sylvia in 2014.

He described it as being sealed in a steel cage, and every day, the cage became tighter. He realized with dismay that when he could have ended his life, he wasn’t ready, and now he was ready but no longer physically able to do so.

The time prior to MAID was full of struggles, pain and frustration. In 2015, Doug moved into a nursing home where 24-hour care was available. He followed the news of Bill C-14, the proposed federal assisted dying law, hoping it would be an option for him. Again, we contacted DWDC for information, and received confirmation that he appeared to be a candidate for the legislation that was about to be passed.

Once the bill was passed in June 2016, Doug applied for an assisted death. There was an agonizing wait while the Nova Scotia Colleges of Nurses and Pharmacists approved the participation of their members, and doctors were trained in the procedure. During this period, we had the compassionate and professional help of the site manager of the nursing home, and of the doctor who attended the home.

After a two month wait, it became official: we learned Doug had been accepted for MAID.

Doug and Sylvia in 2015.

Although I was with him nearly all day every day, I could not do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering he was experiencing, both physically and emotionally. It wasn’t until I supported him in his quest to end his life that I could actually help him. Knowing his life was soon coming to an end made his remaining days better. On September 1, 2016, we learned his life would end on September 6, around 5 p.m.

We had five wonderful days together. He wanted no visitors, no other family present. He was afraid someone would try to talk him out of his decision.

The day arrived — too soon for me. He had asked the staff to get him up and dressed early, and was eagerly awaiting my arrival. He had asked me to bring lunch from home: shrimp, tomatoes, cheese and strawberries, and coffee and oatcakes.

A family photo taken in August 2016, three weeks before Doug's death.

Following lunch, he fell asleep and awoke to find the home doctor had arrived early. They chatted about medicine, fishing and family. A nurse arrived to start the intravenous. Doug debated the bore of the needle with her, and pointed out his best veins. When the two attending doctors came to his room, he was able to ask, one final time, for help in ending his life.

While they left to prepare the medication, he told me not to let anyone grieve for him; he wanted them to be happy for him. And he told me not to be sad, to get on with my life. He was calm, curious, and kept his eyes on the flow of the IV, a doctor to the end.

The doctors and the site manager arrived with the medication. I was by his side, holding his hand, while he watched what was happening. His death was quick, painless, dignified and peaceful, in a room filled with love, compassion and respect. That is what most of us would choose. And now, thanks to DWDC and MAID, we have that option.

Doug was a leader all his life; no less so in his death.

Dying With Dignity Canada is deeply grateful to Sylvia Henshaw for giving all of us a glimpse into Doug's brilliant life. We are incredibly honoured to help her share the story of Doug's empowering choice and journey. Thank you.


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