Few in Sudbury have used medical assistance in dying

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Only a handful of Sudburians have requested medical assistance in dying, or MAID, since it became law three years ago.

Despite the low demand, Mary Huska of Health Sciences North says the hospital in Sudbury is committed to keeping the process streamlined for anyone who may wish to pursue it.

“I think the importance is making sure the person does not feel abandoned. That they are being respected, the family’s being respected.”

A clinical bioethicist, Huska says the hospital strives to keep the process smooth for individuals pursing a medically assisted death.

As of June 2019, Sudbury had less than five MAID cases, according to the Office of the Chief Coroner. In cases where people have asked for MAID, Huska says the hospital does its best to make sure people’s wishes are respected.

“I think the importance is making sure the person does not feel abandoned. That they are being respected, the family’s being respected.”

Social workers help patients develop wills and sort out finances, while chaplains can help with funeral arrangements and decided what they want their death to look like, as well as supporting the family. They are also ensured adequate pain control throughout the process.

“There’s a lot of holistic approach here in the hospital. It’s pretty much a team approach here.”

Huska says she always volunteers to speak about MAID to help educate the public about the process.

“Some people don’t even know it exists. It’s kind of this hidden, taboo topic. We don’t want to talk about dying. It’s opening this discussion; what do you want your death to look like? And I think that’s the importance of it. The end goal is to end suffering.”

The Star spoke to health Sciences North in relation to the medically assisted death of Georgie Hanson of Sudbury, who wanted to share her experiences.

Medically-assisted death has been legal in Canada since 2016. When Hanson found out it was an option, she registered immediately. She was initially rejected as a candidate in May, but reapplied in June and on Aug 10, Hanson, 61, got her wish.

She died peacefully in her own home, with her daughter by her side.

“The legacy I want to leave behind is one of compassion and caring for my fellow human beings, and to do it in a way that makes a difference,” Hanson told The Star during an interview on July 26.

During her life, Hanson had been a journalist, author and a military police officer.

Her daughter was a late addition to Hanson’s bedside. Initially, she thought it would just be the doctor who administered the medications, her home care worker and her friend, Alexis (whom Hanson referred to as an adopted-by-heart daughter).

Due to illness, Hanson said her circle was small (although she was very active on Facebook and tributes poured in during the days afterward).

Hanson had a litany of illnesses, including several cancers; Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome; asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; diabetes; high blood pressure; and had survived two heart attacks. She was also severely injured when an 800-pound cow slammed her into a gate when she was younger.

She said she could no longer take the pain that had destroyed her life.

“Dying of cancer isn’t pretty,” she said. “It’s really, really painful. It takes a psychological toll, as well. I don’t want to die a prolonged, ugly death in hospice or alone here in my apartment. I want a dignified, peaceful death and MAID offers that …

“I cry daily from the excruciating pain, and I want to be released from my physical and psychological torture,” she said.

What finally helped convince her doctors to allow Hanson to proceed with MAID was her drastic and unexplained weight loss. In just seven months, Hanson lost 98.2 kg, about 216 pounds. Hanson shared an email she received from one of her physicians, in which it is confirmed she was a candidate for MAID.

“I did mull over your case last evening and I believe that your natural death is foreseeable due to your chronic digestive issues and precipitous weight loss. None of the other criteria are in any doubt. Whether or not you also have cancer is irrelevant. I will get in touch with Julie Campbell to try to find a second assessor as required by law before we can proceed. You’ve passed the first gate.”

To be eligible for MAID, an individual must be at least 18 years old and mentally competent to make personal health-care decisions. Their medical condition must be in an advance state of decline that can’t be reversed, they must experience physical or mental suffering as a result that can’t be relieved, and they must be at a point where their natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

A MAID request must come from the patient, not at the suggestion of a physician or family member. Once a written request is made, the hospital has 10 days to respond and begin the process, which involves medical assessments from two physicians.

Consent to the procedure can be withdrawn at any time.

Huska says that informed consent is an important part of the process to ensure patients understand the process.

“Sometimes there’s a mix-up between medical assistance in dying and palliative care. We have to understand where the request is coming from. Is there’s something they’re misunderstanding? A lot of individuals, it’s not always MAID they’re talking about; they don’t want to die with suffering.”

Nationally, almost 7,000 Canadians have received medical help to end their lives since Canada legalized assisted dying three years ago.

According to the latest interim report compiled by Health Canada, 6,749 people have received medically assisted deaths.
That amounts to roughly one per cent of all deaths in Canada.

Health Canada says assisted deaths were provided primarily by physicians, with less than 10 per cent provided by nurse practitioners.

Only six people have opted to self-administer drugs to end their lives.

The setting for assisted deaths has been divided primarily between hospitals and patients’ homes, with cancer-related illness the most frequently cited reason for seeking the service.

The report does not include any country-wide statistics on how many Canadians have been denied medical assistance in dying. Only a handful of provinces report that information.

However, the report said the most commonly cited reasons for denying a request for assisted death were “loss of competency” and that the patient’s natural death was not “reasonably foreseeable,” as required by law.

The law requires a person to prove mental competency when they first request an assisted death and again just before it is administered.

— with files from Canadian Press and Mary Katherine Keown

sud.editorial@sunmedia.ca
Twitter: @Mia_RJensen

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