Health system needs to change attitude on dying, forum hears

More than 500 people crowded into Sudbury's Steelworkers Hall Thursday night to talk about death.
It was a full house Thursday night at the Steelworker's Hall in Sudbury. The public forum on end-of-life care was late getting started, as they had to bring out more chairs for a crowd that was pushing 600 people. (Erik White/CBC)

More than 500 people crowded into Sudbury's Steelworkers Hall Thursday night to talk about death.

The forum on end-of-life care heard a lot about how the culture of the health care system is keeping patients from having a better exit.

End of life expert Dr. Harvey Chochinov said a cultural shift is needed in hospitals, so that people don't just become patients.

"We spend all of our professional lives learning to look after patients. But guess what? Nobody wants to be a patient."

Health Sciences North CEO Dr. Denis Roy assured the crowd that the health system can change its attitude on dying.

"There's still hope that the culture will change eventually,” he said.

But Roy said it may take the public speaking out about how they want to be treated when they pass on.

‘Failure to die’

Sudbury’s Lauren Vary was one of those who spoke out. With her husband John slowly losing control of his body to ALS, Vary had to rely on home health care workers.

Over a few months, they saw two-dozen different faces, including one personal support worker who showed up sick, she said.

"She had notified the agency that she had a cold and they sent her anyway,” Vary said. “I sent her home. John would have literally died if he caught a cold."

The crowd also heard about how health care professionals see death. They used using terms like "failure to die" to describe sick people who keep coming back for care.

The growing national debate over doctor-assisted suicide came up at the forum as well. Several people spoke of the euthanasia law that is close to being passed in Quebec.

Chochinov said he believes most people would want to live longer if doctors treated them with dignity and compassion.

He shared the story of a terminally ill patient who said he was considering suicide, before Chochinov spoke with him at length about his life.

“But before he left the room I said, 'If you could push that button now, would you?' And he sheepishly turned to me and said 'Well, no'."

Despite opinion polls showing Canadians support doctor assisted suicide, Chochinov said he believes most people nearing death do not want it as an option.