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Doctor-assisted death obtained by Sherbrooke man who starved himself to qualify

Jean Brault's long search to get help to die ended last week — but only after he went 53 days without food and eight days without water to meet the criteria under Quebec's end-of-life care law.

48 hours before his physician-assisted death, Jean Brault pleaded for review of criteria for help in dying

The Sherbrooke man died with medical assistance on April 7, 2016, after starving himself for 53 days. 0:53

A 61-year-old Sherbrooke, Que., man ended his life legally last week.

But Jean Brault got a doctor's help to die only after starving himself for 53 days and refusing water for eight days — at last arriving at a point so close to death he satisfied his doctors that he'd met all the criteria under Quebec's assisted-dying law. 

Brault spoke to CBC/Radio-Canada on April 5, when he made a plea for loosening the rules to qualify for a doctor-assisted death.

Asked how he felt after learning he'd been pronounced eligible to get medical help to die, his voice choked with emotion.

"I felt liberated," Brault said. "It is as simple as that."

"It's as if a heavy weight has been lifted off [my] chest."

Brault died with medical assistance two days later, on April 7.

A long decline

Brault lived a full life, despite a debilitating handicap for most of the last 42 years. 

He was an athletic 19-year-old when a blood clot near his brain stem left him partially paralyzed.

At the time, doctors told him he would never again walk or speak.

He proved them wrong. He regained some movement and learned how to speak again.  
Jean Brault (middle) was an athlete before suffering a blood clot on his brain stem at age 19. (Radio-Canada)

But when he lost the ability to move his legs after a prolonged hospital stay a decade ago — and slowly began losing the ability to talk — he started to look for a way to die.

Brault said the loss of independence was a devastating blow to his sense of self.

"It was like Chinese water torture," he said.

"You take it, you take it, but then at some point — bang, it's over. That's what it was like for me. That's when I tried to take my own life two times."

Suicide attempts thwarted

Five years ago, Brault stopped eating.

He refused food for close to two months, long enough that when he landed in hospital, doctors threatened to transfer him to the psychiatric ward.

So he agreed to resume eating.

When that first attempt failed, he decided to go to Switzerland to seek a doctor-assisted death.

But that plan was thwarted because he couldn't manage to get all of the required medical documents.
In the years leading up to his death, Brault lost the use of his legs. (Radio-Canada)

So Brault staked his hopes on Quebec's landmark end-of-life care law, which came into effect last December.

He was told he met all criteria except one  he was not dying. 

In February, Brault launched another hunger strike.

"I self-mutilated," he said. "I had to push things to the limit, so that they'd listen to me."

After 53 days without food and eight without water, Brault's body had deteriorated to the point of no return, and he was told he was eligible for doctor-assisted death.

The news "was like total and absolute freedom," he said. "As soon as it's done, it'll be over, finished."

"My heart is happy," he said, 48 hours before his death.

Law needs to change, say advocates

In some of his last words, Brault criticized Quebec's rules for doctor-assisted dying.

"The way government works, it doesn't bend," he said. "It needs to be more flexible."
The head of Dying with Dignity, Shanaaz Gokool, believes Quebec's end-of-life care law is at odds with the 2015 Supreme Court decision on access to doctor-assisted dying. (CBC)

The end-of-life care advocacy group Dying with Dignity acknowledges that Quebec's end-of-life-care law was pioneering legislation in Canada.

However, the group says the law's rules are more restrictive than what the Supreme Court justices set out in their 2015 ruling known as Carter vs. Canada. 

"The Carter decision doesn't restrict to people who have a terminal illness. It looks at people who have a grievous and irremediable medical condition," said Dying with Dignity CEO Shanaaz Gokool.

"From our perspective, the Quebec law is not in compliance with the Carter decision and should be amended." 

In order to comply with the Carter decision, the federal government is facing a strict deadline to create its own law allowing for doctor-assisted death. It's expected to be tabled in Parliament this week.

Quebec government not budging

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said on Monday that amending the law is not a priority for the Philippe Couillard government. 

"We have our law, our boundaries, our parameters, our limitations," he said.

"I believe right now that Quebec's population is satisfied with it."

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette says there are no plans to amend the province's assisted-death law. (CBC)

 

About the Author

Kate McKenna

Kate McKenna is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Email her at kate.mckenna@cbc.ca

With files from Radio-Canada's Michel Bherer

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