The Doc Project

'Can I go ahead now, Jane?': One doctor's first medically assisted death

Caring for patients at the end of life was Dr. Joshua Wales' job as a palliative care physician. But how would he handle bringing about someone's death?
Joshua Wales, making his way to the water. One of Jane's favourite things to do was stride into a cold lake.

As a palliative care doctor, Joshua Wales had seen a lot of death. But he had never intentionally shortened someone's life. That all changed in summer 2016, when he had his first experience of medically assisted dying, just a couple of months after it was legalized in Canada.

His patient's name was Jane. She had been diagnosed with cancer, and had been gradually losing her independence, her quality of life.

In her words, she wanted a rational goodbye.- Dr. Joshua Wales

But Wales was worried. How would he feel about performing this procedure? He decided he needed to get to know Jane as a person.

"To make sense of this part I was playing in Jane's death, I felt that I needed to better understand her life," says Wales.

So the two of them spent time together. They listened to music: Jane loved music, and showed him her extensive vinyl collection. And she told him about the things she loved to do.  

Dr. Joshua Wales is a palliative care physician.
"I remember how specifically she coloured her losses for me," remembers Wales. "She wasn't able to walk to the beach, wading into the lake, shrieking as the too-cold water splashed her calves. She could no longer eat a huge sandwich from her favourite place down the street. She couldn't wander her neighbourhood on quiet Sunday mornings before everyone was awake. She knew for herself what living meant. And to her, this wasn't worth it anymore."
She knew for herself what living meant, and to her, this wasn't worth it anymore.- Dr. Joshua Wales

On the day of Jane's death, Wales arrived at her apartment wearing a pink shirt, as she had requested. Pink was her favourite colour, and her family had put vases of pink flowers all around.

Wales arranged the medications in order on her kitchen table, then carried them into the bedroom where Jane's family has gathered around her. He told her they would wait as long as she wanted before starting, and that she could still change her mind.

"In her typically unsentimental fashion, she just wanted to get on with it," remembers Wales.

Jane said goodbye to her family,  then nodded her assent to go ahead. She turned her head back to her family, so they would be the last thing she saw as she passed away, and Wales began his work.

In this documentary, Joshua Wales tells his story of Jane, and of the moment assisted dying went from a concept to a very powerful emotional reality.

About the producer 
(Veronica Simmonds)

Veronica Simmonds is a radio experimenter. Her documentaries have aired on CBC, ABC and BBC. Her radio art work has aired in a weather observatory in France, a hair dryer in Pittsburgh, and a grain silo in Norway. Her love of the internet has led her to create interactive web experiences such as Body of Water and her love of hair led her to create her podcast Braidio, where she braided hair on air. These days she works with CBC Original Podcasts, producing Sleepover with Sook-Yin Lee,  Alone: A Love Story and now, The Fridge Light. Twitter: @veesimmonds