Witnesses to choice

Volunteers in DWDC’s independent-witness program explain what it’s like to help break down barriers facing Canadians trying to exercise their right to assisted dying.

Empowerment for the patient: that is the goal of every Dying With Dignity Canada volunteer.

But some volunteers go an extra mile. They act personally as a “witness” to patient requests for medical assistance in dying (MAID) and their task is, by law, essential. Even if two doctors approve the person’s request to access their choice, their request cannot go ahead unless it’s signed by two independent witnesses — individuals who are not involved in the applicant’s care and who don’t stand to materially benefit from the person’s death. Finding two suitable witnesses has proven difficult for Canadians seeking to access a peaceful death, which is why DWDC recently put a call out for more volunteers.

What does a witness do? And what is it like to provide this service? He or she visits the patient requesting MAID and signs a very short form affirming that patient’s intention. That is all. The volunteer witness may meet the patient wherever he or she lives: hospice, hospital, nursing home or private residence. A companion volunteer witness accompanies him or her, and both sign the expression-of-intent form. It all takes about 15 minutes — but it can change a life.

Glen MacDonald, of Toronto, says that he finds that the patients he meets face their situation with a clarity and courage that is “awesome.” Fifteen times in the past year, Glen has acted as a witness. He stresses that his work has unexpectedly, and greatly, enriched his life. In addition, Glen says, he appreciates the chance to get to know other volunteers who feel exactly as he does: that it’s a privilege to help the most vulnerable people in the world at precisely the time they need help the most.

In Calgary, another witness, Trish Remmers, echoes the feelings and the views of Glen MacDonald. Like Glen, Trish has been impressed by the dedication of her fellow volunteers in Calgary, but most of all by the courage and the welcoming attitude of patients. “One patient even opened the door to me,” she remembers.

Trish has acted as a witness 12 times this past year, with the locales varying widely: hospital, hospice, nursing home and private home. Along with Trish, 12 other Calgarians are also acting as witnesses now; each one works with an accompanying witness, plus sometimes a social worker or an experienced “nurse navigator.”

“What keeps me going,” says Trish, “is my passionate belief in what Dying With Dignity Canada is all about: the right of every person to a peaceful death.”

When it comes to accessing MAID, sometimes the hurdles a patient faces are huge — and sometimes they are seemingly petty. A witness helps a patient surmount a problem that is huge and small.

'Lifting such great sorrow for a patient'

In Vancouver, Alex Muir has acted as a witness 10 times since only May of this year. Alex is a witness coordinator in Vancouver, working with 27 other witnesses in the area.

And what fuels Alex’s commitment? Mainly two particular cases, Alex explains: his father’s death (only 18 months ago) and that of a cousin with ALS.

Though his main task may last only a quarter of an hour or so, he says that, in his experience, “sometimes a patient wants to share his or her feelings with me.” That happens maybe half of the time, Alex notes, and then his job is simple: just to listen.

“Yes, I found acting as a witness a challenge at first,” Alex admits. “But you come to see yourself as actually lifting such great sorrow for a patient — and sometimes a traumatized family, too. That is what keeps me going.”

Alex meets patients mainly in their own private home, and, in that case, always with a family member there. If the locale is a hospital, a social worker will accompany him.

He predicts that his witness program will steadily add more volunteers in the Vancouver area, thanks mainly to word of mouth.

As Canada ages, more and more of us will ask for MAID when facing intolerable suffering and a total loss of autonomy. DWDC volunteers like Glen, Trish and Alex will be there to help.

Are you interested in serving as an independent witness for MAID? If so, please contact DWDC National Events and Volunteer Coordinator Kelsey Goforth at kelsey.goforth@dyingwithdignity.ca or toll-free at 1-877-389-1251. Click here to learn more about our independent witness program.

The author, Laura Common, is a Dying With Dignity Canada volunteer in Toronto.

(Photo credit: Claudio's Pics/Adobe Stock)