“You’re playing God,” a caller told me after she read my recent column on abortion. “Don’t you know you are going against your faith?”
My views on what I want to happen when I feel my day is done didn’t go over any better. I don’t want to die, but like most I’d like to do it on my terms. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am against me or anyone else telling someone nearing the end of their life journey they have to continue to suffer, even if they have made the decision they have had enough.
Many people are torn by end-of-life issues, but are all talk and no action. Have you figured out who will make health-care decisions for you, if you can’t? If you are in a car accident or the victim of a crime or suddenly struck down by a disease that makes you incapable of communicating your wants and desires, is there anyone who knows — or even better, have you written down — when you want the medical experts to “let you go?”
A project called the Speak Up Campaign has been encouraging people to do just that. A news release quotes a March Ipsos-Reid national poll as finding less than half of Canadians have discussed the treatment they would want to have if they were ill and unable to communicate. More than 80 per cent of respondents did not have a written plan.
Ultimately, it’s something politicians may have to address. Just this week, the Supreme Court has been dealing with a case that involves whether physicians need consent before taking a patient off life support. The ruling will have serious implications for the medical decisions taken near the end of a person’s life.
In Quebec, a non-partisan commission has suggested the government make it legal for doctors to help the terminally ill to die, if they want to, under “exceptional circumstances.” The Canadian Press reported the so-called Dying With Dignity Committee recommended a legal option for medical assistance for dying, in cases where Quebecers are terminally ill and want to die.
That has drawn all kinds of attention, including from the Assembly of Quebec Bishops who maintain “Changing the expressions ‘assisted suicide and euthanasia’ to ‘physician-assisted dying’ does not change reality.” They said the “moral and ethical consequences are numerous.”
I’ve seen friends spend months fighting death, most using every possible means to stay on this Earth. One hunted down miracle cures and specialists around the world, not because he wasn’t spiritually ready, but because he had so much to live for. He talked about his love for his wife and children. Leaving them, not the pain of cancer, was behind the tears he shed.
They say you never know until it happens, but I’m pretty sure I’d have an angry response to death. I’ll always remember being told by a physician as I protested having certain tests, “but you could have cancer.” I had the procedure, and am one of the lucky ones. Still, it makes you think, and plan.
For me, it’s “do not resuscitate” and an order to allow natural death. I want comfort measures provided, but it may mean the withdrawal of nutrition and hydration to allow me to die as comfortably as possible without prolonging the process.
I do not want to burden my family with the decision. I know I can’t ask for assistance to die, but when the time is right, I want to go with dignity as I see it.
And it isn’t just about my avoiding suffering. It is also about loved ones seeing me suffer. I doubt the good I have hopefully done on this earth will be erased by that choice.
There’s an interesting line in Mitch Albom’s book “Have a Little Faith.”
“‘… our sages tell us to repent exactly one day before we die.’ But how do you know it’s the day before you die, I asked. He raised his eyebrows. ‘Exactly.’”
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached