The Current

Assisted dying: Doctors struggle with how to help patients end their lives

As Canada moves closer to permit physician-assisted death, those doctors willing to take part are educating themselves on everything from procedures, to drug protocols, to learning which other health professionals will be legally able to assist them.

Lawyer reads terminally ill client's statement thanking the court for right to doctor-assisted death

7 years ago
Duration 1:12
In a first for Ontario, a judge has granted an exemption that will allow a terminally ill Toronto man to end his life with the assistance of a doctor. The man's lawyer read his client's statement of thanks for the decision.

Read story transcript 

I do not wish to have continued suffering and to die of this illness by choking. I feel that my time has come to go in peace.- Ms. S lived in Calgary with ALS, or Lou Gherig's disease

Ms. S ended her life Feb. 29, 2016. Her identity is covered by a publication ban, because Ms. S is believed to be the first Canadian outside of Quebec to die legally with a doctor's help. 

The government is due to to introduce assisted-dying legislation by June in response to the 2015 Supreme Court's decision to strike down the ban on physician-assisted dying.

Currently, Canadians can seek a judge's special permission for a physician-assisted death, as Ms S did, and also as an 81-year-old Ontario man suffering from aggressive lymphoma just did recently.

The Current wanted to examine how Canadian physicians are preparing for their new role.

Guests in this segment:

  • Dr. W, was the physician who helped Ms. S end her life. Her name is also covered by a publication ban.
  • Dr. Vanessa Cardy, family physician specializing in palliative care in Wakefield, Que. and in Chisasibi, a Cree community on James Bay in Northern Quebec.
  • Dr. James Downar, critical care and palliative care staff physician in the University Health Network in Toronto, and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. 

The Current requested a statement from the College of Registered Nurses of British Columbia. It reads:

"The college appreciates the important role Canadian nurses play in palliative and end-of-life care.  At the same time, the recent Supreme Court of Canada "Carters" decision did not address the role of nurses in physician-assisted death, unfortunately  leaving it unclear for regulators across Canada how nurses can and should be involved."

"We understand this lack of clarity can be frustrating and disappointing, particularly for patients and loved ones who are directly affected by this issue.  The College is committed to understanding the impact of this ruling on nursing practice and is actively preparing for anticipated legislation that will clarify the role nurses may have in physician-assisted dying in the coming months.  Until then, the College asks nurses to continue to put patient's interest first, connecting them with a physician if they have questions about physician-assisted dying."

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins and Montreal network producer Susan McKenzie.