As It Happens

Doctor accused of 'sneaking in and killing someone' at Jewish nursing home says she did nothing wrong

A B.C. doctor could face disciplinary action for performing a medically assisted death behind closed doors at a Jewish nursing home in Vancouver.
Dr. Ellen Wiebe stands by her decision to perform a medically assisted death against the policies of an orthodox Jewish nursing home. (CBC)

Story transcript

A B.C. doctor who performs medically assisted deaths is defending herself against allegations of "sneaking in and killing someone" at an orthodox Jewish nursing home. 

The Louis Brier Nursing Home in Vancouver has issued a formal complaint with the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons against Dr. Ellen Wiebe after she granted 83-year-old Barry Hyman's request to die at the facility he calls home.

Louis Brier allows residents to undergo assessments for medically assisted death at the home, but requires them to be transferred to another health-care facility to have the procedure done.

"That care home is a home. It was the only home for Barry Hyman and he chose to die in his home and he had the right to make that choice," Wiebe told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"He also had some right to privacy. And so when he and his family asked that he be allowed to die in his home and with privacy, I was able to honour that wish."

Hyman's family declined to comment for this story.

Wiebe met with Hyman and his family last spring and determined he met all the criteria for a medically assisted death.

He was suffering the after-effects of a stroke and had been diagnosed with lung cancer. His mind was sharp, but he had difficultly speaking clearly and could no longer read or perform basic tasks without help.

Barry Hyman told his family he did not want to go on living if he couldn't take care of himself and do the things he enjoyed. (Submitted by Dying With Dignity )

"He was finished and had enough suffering and no longer could do the things that he cared about and he wanted to die," she said.

The family put in a formal request to have Hyman die in the nursing home. It was declined.

'The family wanted privacy'

Wiebe offered to have Hyman moved to the Vancouver General Hospital or to her personal clinic, she said, but he insisted he be allowed to die at the nursing home.

"The family wanted privacy so we just set up a time," she said. "When my nurse and I arrived, went in to his room and closed the door."

Hyman died just after 7 p.m. on June 29, 2017.

The family notified nursing home staff the next day, Wiebe said.

Louis Brier Nursing Home in Vancouver accused Wiebe of 'sneaking in' to the facility. The doctor says she was there as a guest of the family and did not need permission. (Google Street View)

The Louis Brier Nursing Home did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment, but its CEO David Keselman told the Vancouver Sun Wiebe's actions were "borderline unethical."

"Imagine the implications for our staff and our residents and their families," he said.

"We have a lot of Holocaust survivors. To have a doctor sneak in and kill someone without telling anyone. They're going to feel like they're at risk when you learn someone was sneaking in and killing someone."

Wiebe dismissed allegations this was traumatic for staff and patients.

"His medical conditions were such that he could have died at any moment," she said. "The idea that he died suddenly should not cause any trauma in a care home which has sudden deaths all the time."

The nursing home says doctors will need to request visiting privileges to see patients at the facility from now on. 

'Cruel' and 'impractical' 

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada's ban on doctor-assisted dying in 2016, and federal assisted dying legislation came into effect the following year.

Both made it clear doctors could not be compelled to help their patients die, but neither addressed whether entire health-care organizations could bow out of the procedure.

Every province outside of Quebec currently allows publicly funded faith-based hospitals and care homes to deny medically assisted deaths to their patients. 

Dying With Dignity Canada says it's a legal gap that needs to be addressed. 

Dying with Dignity CEO Shanaaz Gokool says forcing patients to transfer facilities to access medically assisted death 'flies in the face of the values of compassion and equitable access that are enshrined in Canada’s public health-care system.' (CBC)

"Canadians who are eligible for medical assistance in dying are some of this country's most vulnerable, physically compromised patients," the organization's CEO Shanaaz Gokool said in a press release in support of Wiebe.

"Forcing these individuals to be transferred — from facilities that are, in some cases, the person's home — in order to access their right to a peaceful death is as cruel as it is impractical."

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix was unavailable comment, but his office told As It Happens it has no intention of changing rules that allow faith-based facilities to bow out of "services that are inconsistent with their religious mission and values."

"As health authorities continue to phase-in the availability of this legal health-care service throughout their regions, the majority of owned and operated non-denominational facilities allow all aspects of medical assistance in dying to happen on site," the ministry said in an emailed statement.

What's next?

Wiebe will now face a disciplinary hearing with the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which regulates the practice of medicine in B.C. A spokesperson said complaints are kept private unless disciplinary action is taken. 

Wiebe said she also had a meeting with the representatives from the nursing home and Vancouver Coastal Health.

"In that meeting I was asked to promise that nothing like this would ever happen again, and I refused to promise that," she said.

"I said that I would take each case individually and if a patient said that they wanted to die at home and I could offer it, I would do so."