The West Island Palliative Care Residence in Kirkland has the most in-patient beds (23) of any such centre in Canada, and those of us who run it and care for our patients and their families have an intimate knowledge of the issues being raised by the Dr. Low video and Bill 52. However, we do believe that physician assisted suicide or euthanasia is not necessarily the answer.
What is required instead is more and better specialized palliative care, to meet the needs of these patients and their families. Palliative care affirms life, while helping to ease the physical, emotional and social distress of the patient and his or her family.
We certainly empathize with the profound and sincere feelings expressed by Dr. Low in his final video, expressing his wish to have help to end his life when and how he wished — something not currently permitted anywhere in Canada. We know nothing more about the circumstances of his death than what was said in the video, that he died “peacefully and without pain, in the arms of his wife.” To us in palliative care and, we believe, to most people, that would constitute a good death.
We recognize, and know all too well from our long experience with our patients, that the journey to a peaceful, pain-free death with palliative care is not always easy as illness and physical deterioration progress to death. But contrary to Dr. Low’s expressed fear, we do not see this as undignified. More often, in fact, it is a meaningful and very dignified journey for our patients and their loved ones.
These everyday people — bedbound, incontinent and nearing death — are not concerned with having control over the timing or method of their end to life; instead, they look to focus on creating life-affirming moments that bring great satisfaction, closure and even joy. This is what our patients and families have done. As palliative-care professionals and volunteers, we walk beside them and support them through the process of dying.
We believe all life is valuable, even if it is the life of someone living with a terminal illness or a progressive or chronic disease. People need support, both physically and emotionally, to help them deal with and understand what is happening to them. Palliative-care teams across Canada already possess the expertise and knowledge to alleviate practically all suffering. These are the resources that are most needed by patients and families. Our job — indeed, our commitment to our patients and their families — is not to help our patients die, but to help them live the best life possible until death does its inevitable work.