DWDC Vancouver chapter co-chair Alex Muir met his friend Nancy while volunteering as an independent witness for those requesting medical assistance in dying (MAID). Nancy had decided to volunteer because of her personal battle with cancer in order to understand the process of accessing an assisted death. After years of recurrences of cancer, she shared her powerful story of applying and preparing for MAID on our blog in March. In this moving piece, Alex recounts what it was like being present at Nancy's MAID provision and saying goodbye to his friend, and why the choice of an assisted death is so important for peace at end of life.
I had the privilege on June 22 to attend the medically assisted death of a friend and compatriot in a lovely Fraser Valley hospice. Nancy had battled recurrences of cancer over the years, which she faced with grace and fortitude. This latest round ravaged her body, but not her quick wit and always inquisitive mind. It was the latter that led to our meeting. After medical assistance in dying (MAID) became legal in June of 2016, she thought that she should find out more about it because she knew that it was a choice she might consider down the road. She and I met as volunteer witnesses with Dying with Dignity Canada. Basically, we witness the signatures of individuals requesting MAID who don’t have or feel uncomfortable asking friends or acquaintances to do this. This is generally co-ordinated through the local health authority.
It was through her witnessing activities that Nancy discovered the hospice which she eventually chose as her final home. She was instantly impressed by the nice rooms and compassionate staff. Her comment was, “I knew that this is where I’d like to end my days”. It’s where she would spend the last 3 months of her life.
Always the organizer, she planned the day of her death a couple of weeks in advance, ensuring that everyone knew the details. When I showed up, there were a few close hospice caregivers and friends in the room. The hospice provided fizzy apple juice, strawberries and small eclairs, which we all shared while taking turns reading poems requested by Nancy.
We swapped “Nancy” stories and listened to Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” in the background. When Nancy was ready, the hospice staff left and a nurse inserted two IV lines (one as backup), chatting with Nancy throughout. The seasoned and friendly nurse practitioner then entered the room and had a lovely exchange with Nancy about the process, confirming that she still wanted to proceed. Following a final “I love you” to the four of us in attendance, the nurse practitioner commenced the series of 4 drugs. We watched as Nancy first relaxed, closed her eyes and then drifted off to sleep. The whole experience was calm and peaceful.
This is what a medically assisted death in hospice should look like. It includes engagement by the patient, compassionate hospice staff, supportive friends and family in attendance and a caring medical practitioner administering the procedure. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option at Irene Thomas Hospice in Delta (hence the current public outcry) nor at any faith-based facility in the province of BC and most of Canada. Instead, patients opting for MAID in these hospitals, hospices and care homes are forcibly transferred to another facility. This creates untold angst and sometimes physical pain for the patient, ending up in a strange environment surrounded by unknown staff. How can this be considered “compassionate care”?
If everyone who opposes MAID had a personal experience with a friend or family member going through a painful journey toward death, I expect many would change their view. No one enjoys seeing someone suffer when it isn’t necessary. Medical assistance in dying is a legal right in Canada which should be available to all who qualify, regardless of what facility they are in. Let’s change the laws so that everyone who qualifies has access to the same peaceful death which Nancy chose.
Editor's note: A version of this story was published in the Delta Optimist on July 9, 2020.