When Jana Buhlmann's husband, Chris, celebrated his 41st birthday, it was a bittersweet occasion because they both knew it would be his last. The very next day, Chris was scheduled to have his medically assisted death. He struggled with the decision, but he knew his grim prognosis and the imminent intolerable suffering on the road ahead. Assisted dying offered him another, more compassionate path instead, Jana writes.
My husband Chris chose September 25, 2017 — the day after his 41st birthday — as the date of his medically assisted death. He often wondered if he would make it that long. And when he got there, he wondered if he was cutting himself short. Chris was the first assisted death in New Westminster, British Columbia. As his wife, I believe he stands as an incredible example of so many things, one of which is that it is okay to die in discontent. It is okay to die, with fear. This was simply Chris' truth. And medical assistance in dying (MAID) allowed him a means of asking for help, on a path that would likely have lasted much longer and involved the kind of suffering he feared most.
Chris celebrating his 41st birthday, the day before his assisted death. (Photo credit: Jana Buhlmann)
I have been writing about Chris, and the brief time we shared, on my blog, Bring the Joy. We knew each other for less than three years, and were married for less than a year. I believe I came into Chris' life to walk with him on this difficult last path, and while it was the hardest thing I have ever done, I now carry with me an equal peace. My hope is that Chris' life can stand as an example to me, in taking a hard look at my own discontent. My hope is that when my own death stands before me, the peace I feel today will still be with me.
Chris' was a hard diagnosis. He had just turned 40 and had been experiencing several symptoms that left him feeling increasingly uneasy. In January of that same year, pneumonia showed abnormalities in his lungs that were later ruled out. Not long before his cancer diagnosis, the lower back pain he had been enduring was diagnosed as arthritis. And before he took himself to emergency at the beginning of November, he had an appointment to explore a possible issue with his liver.
But on November 8, 2016, a specialist at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster informed him that he had stage four colon cancer, which had metastasized to his peritoneum. It had most likely been growing for 12 years, but of course Chris was too young for the kind of testing that would have caught it early.
Those first medical encounters were disheartening and grueling. Chris' first oncologist did not say hello, but rather, “We're not curing this.” Chris pushed his way through four rounds of chemo with this doctor before switching to a different oncologist who changed his protocol to something that should have had fewer side effects, but left Chris beyond his limits with incredible nausea. He said “enough” after seven rounds total.
Jana and Chris (Photo credit: Ellie Ericson Photography)
Chris had been exploring the Rick Simpson cannabis protocol while on chemo, and made his way through two rounds of high doses. He ensured he was a licensed user, and was extremely privileged to have this right. As the disease progressed, cannabis would be his escape and relief. Had he been able to manage the disease, I think it would have also become his livelihood; he devoured all the information he could find and was proud to speak about it when any opportunity arose.
Chris also tried naturopathic treatments, including mistletoe and vitamin C therapies. We were able to find some incredibly skilled and knowledgeable naturopathic practitioners, and I await the day when all forms of cancer therapy can be integrated with the patient at the centre of their management.
When Chris had finally had enough — enough of being poked, as he put it — it was his oncologist who referred us to palliative care. We had no idea the kind of support we were about to receive.
Along the way, there were so many tentative moments, where the right decision was not stepping forward and we both feared the possible roadblocks. Would Chris be allowed to do chemo if he was using cannabis? What would prevent him from utilizing MAID? Palliative care was a constant answer, an incredible reassurance that we were most definitely not alone as we made choices.
Chris' cold photo shoot in 2016. (Photo credit: Sarah Heshpeter)
Chris' oncologist had also directed us to MAID, but it was the palliative homecare team that helped us explore the concept, and addressed all of our questions. As it was a first for their team, it also became a part of the process of their care. It was palliative nurses that were with us at the end.
People might wonder what MAID is like, in its literal moments. We did. We were told it would be 10 minutes in duration. We learned we had the option of enacting it at home, and that Chris could be injected rather than carry it out himself. In those last moments, this was exactly how it played out. It was fast, with a change in Chris' breathing after less than 10 minutes and his full passage shortly afterward.
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Chris didn't know where he wanted me to be on that morning, so I suggested he spoon me and I lead him out. He said okay. I felt no energy transfer from him. He was there, and then he was gone. His mother, father, and son were in the room with us. His sister, a close cousin and stepfather, were out in the living room. Others knew of his date and lit candles by rivers or reflected on where the sun was during that time of day, in their part of the world. Chris had celebrated his own life via a living wake just the week before, so all of that love was still very much close by.
Unfortunately, Chris was also challenged in his choice of MAID during his final hours. People once close to him chose to reach out and attempted to prevent him from following through. Their fears did nothing for his fears, and it was hard to watch the text messages and phone calls play out. For those of us close by, we realized just how difficult a choice MAID really is. It is not something one chooses lightly, but it is a gift to be able to say that one's own suffering can and must come to an end.
Our wedding — aboard an aquabus near Granville Island — and Chris' living wake were both covered via news pieces on CTV Vancouver. We hoped to inspire and inform others living similarly difficult experiences. And I hope to have the opportunity to speak further about MAID, both the difficulty and value of its choice. Chris took a bath alone, the day before he died. It is impossible to put a value on that kind of independence.
(Photo credit: Elvira Yebes)
Jana Buhlmann lives in New Westminster, a city her husband loved and which comforts her with its sense of community. Dying With Dignity Canada extends a sincere thank you to her for sharing her and Chris’ beautiful, powerful story.