The Right to Dignity


A young Theresa Wells and her father share a moment on the family farm in Saskatchewan, which she now owns with her sisters. Supplied Image/Theresa Wells


Ten years ago my father died in a palliative care ward after a long and painful journey with lung cancer. He was 81 years old and had lived a remarkably good life for a man who had seen the Great Depression, a World War and a society that changed in astonishing ways in eight decades.

The last years of his life, however, and particularly the last weeks, were filled with suffering, indignity and agony, made all the more unbearable due to his complete lucidity until his very final breath. For most of human history, this has been how death came for us as we approached the end of our lives, struck down with terminal illnesses and having no choice but to wait to die.

My mother’s death seven years ago was much different. She suffered a massive aneurysm, most likely having gone to bed with a headache as evidence by the bottle of acetaminophen found on her kitchen counter, and she never awoke.

She was found unconscious and spent the next five days in intensive care, unresponsive and, according to the kind young neurologist, unaware of the circumstances and pain free due to the brain damage she had suffered. On his advice, and as a family, we disconnected the machinery keeping her alive. She died surrounded by her family, never knowing death had come for her.

The contrast between these two deaths was striking. Our nation is just now moving towards allowing individuals like my father to choose how their lives will end through physician-assisted death. Cases are now popping up, province by province in which terminally ill individuals are making this choice, and ending their lives on their own terms.

Let me be very clear here – the care my father received while he was on the palliative ward was excellent, but there is no dignity in his kind of death. A proud man, he was reduced to relying on others for the most basic functions. His frail body, devastated by the cancer, was developing bed sores despite the wonderful care.

He had no control over anything, not even his own death, and it hurt me then and hurts me even now to think of him lying in that bed, suffering for weeks, all the while knowing he would die.

We all want to believe the cavalry will arrive and save our loved ones, just like in the movies. But life is not a movie, and there was no cavalry for my father. His only salvation was the morphine drip, just enough to take the edge off his pain but not enough to relieve it, and not enough to depress his breathing so he could simply end it should he choose to do so. Ending his suffering was not legal, but keeping him in suffering was. It is maddening to contemplate.

I spent a decade working in veterinary clinics. During that time I counseled hundreds of loving pet owners as they made the difficult decision to euthanize their pets. I grieved with them, and I was often there when the euthanasia was performed, a completely painless procedure that ended the suffering for the animals who are not pets, but family.

As I sat with my father and watched him in pain I could not help but think about all those years, all the times when we talked about how ending pain and suffering is the final gift we can give to the ones we love. And yet, my father, who could speak where an animal cannot and who could have chosen his own end, was denied this opportunity and this choice.

Much of the opposition regarding physician-assisted death comes from a religious point of view. While I respect their position, the religious views of some cannot, and should not, dictate the rights of all.

Some religions believe there is value and worth in suffering, but this is not a theory to which all subscribe. After watching my parents die, one in pain and suffering and knowing full well that death was coming, and one who simply went to sleep and never woke up, I fail to see, and will never see, the value or worth of the suffering my father endured.

Some believe allowing physician-assisted death will create an “open season” on our elderly and infirm. I do not subscribe to that point of view, either. If I could have kept either of my parents alive for just one more day, free of pain, I would have done so.

Physician-assisted death is about allowing people to choose the manner of their death and the timing, and allowing them to exercise their right to make choices for their life as they see fit.

The time has come for our nation. Writing this piece has been incredibly difficult, as it takes me back to a worn recliner in a mint green hospital room, surrounded by the noisy clutter of a hospital ward, watching as the man who gave so much to me and to this world lay dying in a bed, feeling pain that I could not relieve.

It is for him that I write this, and for all those who wish to die with choice and dignity. I hope one day when my time comes – or yours – that it is the final choice we are allowed to make.

It should be our right to die with dignity, the kind my father was denied ten years ago. That is the kind of ending we should all hope to find in our final days on this earth.

Fort McMurray Today

April 9, 2016


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