Toronto·Video

'Happy to be out of the broken body': One man's journey to assisted death

On July 7, at the age of 69, Michael Micallef chose to die by medically assisted death. This is why he made that choice.

Michael Micallef was diagnosed with Huntington's disease nearly 30 years ago

Michael Micallef had lived with Huntington's disease for nearly three decades. In July, he chose to die by medically assisted death in the backyard of a close friend in Toronto. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

As Michael Micallef's body began to fail, a thought persisted in his mind — he didn't want to die slowly, the way his father had.

For nearly three decades, the Toronto man had been living with Huntington's disease. The hereditary, neurodegenerative illness had taken Micallef's father about a decade before, and now, it was taking him.

As it progressed, his motor skills, speech, ability to read, and even Micallef's ability to sleep were all faltering. 

"He said he really [regretted] he didn't have the courage to kill himself," he said of his father.

That's one of the reasons why on July 7, at the age of 69, the Toronto man and his wife, Vickie, held a party to celebrate his life before Micallef's medically assisted death later that evening.

Surrounded by his closest friends and his wife of 48 years, Micallef got to say goodbye on his own terms during a party at his condo building.

Alongside dozens of guests, he enjoyed some of his favourite food — cinnamon buns, mangoes, and Whole Foods rotisserie chicken.  

"This can be good for everybody. Not the result, but the process," Micallef said. "Being able to have choices is extremely important to me. Not to others, but it is to me."

On July 7, at the age of 69, Micallef chose to die by medically assisted death. Here is why he made that choice. 6:53

According to the Office of the Chief Coroner, there were 1,593 medically assisted deaths in Ontario between June 30, 2018, and June 30, 2019.

Since the procedure was legalized in 2016, there have been more than 3,300 medically assisted deaths in the province, statistics show. The coroner's office says that in Ontario, roughly 1.5 per cent of all deaths are now medically assisted.

It's something Micallef considered ever since his diagnosis, nearly 30 years ago — but it wasn't truly a possibility until the procedure became legal.

For Micallef and his wife, his decision to die wasn't a cause for sorrow. His party was a celebration — of life, love, and memories made. There was a steady parade of hugs from well-wishers, along with hopes for an easy passage. 

His brother, sister and cousins came. Friends surrounded Micallef to wish him well.

"I said to him, 'Do you realize how lovely this is? Michael we are going to have a farewell party ... when you go to wherever the next stage is, you're going to know how people feel about you,'" Vickie said.

"This is a blessing." 

'Little explosions' in his brain

Micallef attended St. Michael's College School through his teen years, where a voracious love of reading took hold, alongside a passion for competitive hockey.

Later in life, his job with furniture company Herman Miller had taken both him and his wife to England, Singapore and Michigan, before landing back in Toronto.

The pair did not have children. They had a large group of friends, extended family and associates all over the world.

In Micallef's last days, he could barely read, or even sleep. He struggled to speak. His quality of life was plummeting.

Micallef's wife, Vickie, said she said goodbye to him 10 years ago because his personality had changed. 'The man I married hasn't been with me for a long time,' she said. The couple, pictured here in 2008, were married for 48 years. (Mark Roffey)

"He told me, 'My brain is starting to have little explosions in it and my muscles are starting to have little explosions,' which means he's going to the next stage," Vickie said.

Huntington's disease is an illness that causes certain parts of the brain to die, and results in physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms.

Patients lose weight, have diminished co-ordination, and difficulty walking, talking and swallowing. They can also face symptoms like depression, irritability, and obsessive behaviour.

Saying goodbye

According to the Huntington Society of Canada, people in advanced stages of the disease can no longer manage the activities of daily living, and need professional care.

Micallef wanted none of that.

"I think I said goodbye 10 years ago to Michael because the personality changed, so the man I married hasn't been with me for a long time," Vickie said.

Micallef's family says he had a successful sales and management career. He was diagnosed with Huntington's disease in his 40s. His father also had the genetic disease. After watching his decline, Micallef didn't want to go through the same. (Submitted by Vickie Micallef)

Last month, in a friend's backyard in the city's Leaside neighbourhood, a nurse injected Micallef with a sedative. Then a doctor administered a substance to end his life.

He passed away while reclining on a lawn chair, with his wife next to him.

"We had a lovely little chat before he left," Vickie said.

"I know he's in a better place. I know his fight — I know his pain — is over with.

"I tell people Michael's soul is now soaring through the universe, happy to be out of the broken body."

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