The Need for More Palliative Care

Physician-assisted suicide has been legal in Quebec for almost a year. Health Minister Gaetan Barrette announced recently that far more people have chosen to end their lives than expected. He had anticipated about 100 in the first year and more than 300 will have died by the time the law marks the end of its first year on December 10, 2016. It is a sad chapter in our history.

It is not surprising, given the quality of health care offered to those in need of chronic and palliative care. Consider the story of Archie Rolland, from an account in the Montreal Gazette:

Rolland is one of 18 patients with severe degenerative conditions and respiratory ailments who were transferred to the second floor of the Lachine Hospital’s Camille-Lefebvre wing when the downtown Montreal Chest Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre closed in January 2015 as part of the move to the Glen site.

It was not a happy move for all involved. Many of the families objected repeatedly to the transfer, calling it a forced relocation.

Patients’ families feared the move would destabilize patients, of whom 14 are on ventilators. Totally disabled and dependent on the institution for care, they moved from a specialized medical hospital to a long-term care ward with 22 aging residents.

Rolland, a former landscape architect, said he would rather end his life than live in pain in a facility that he said was treating him inhumanely. He said that it wasn’t his illness that was killing him (he lived with ALS for fifteen years) but it was the lack of compassionate care. With the assistance of a physician, and to our great shame, he took his life last July.

Those of us of a certain age have “been there, done that” already with the pro-choice rhetoric. All the support goes to one choice. When it comes to having an abortion, you have a right to have a clinic practically within walking distance, providing abortions for free, confidentially. A few cramps and you’re done. And the choice to continue the pregnancy? Lose your future, drop out of school, move out of the dorms, find affordable health care, go broke, raise a child on your own. Sure, you can choose that, too. Good luck!

That anyone would choose to end their lives because he could not receive the quality of care that he deserved is unacceptable and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. One Archie Rolland means the law is a fraud. If our health care system does not provide for the needs of the chronically ill and dying, what good is it? All true; but thing we learned from years fighting against abortion is that, while fighting unjust laws is important, the real work is in changing hearts. We need to care about people like Archie who are suffering and respond to them with genuine compassion. The process of dying should not be compromised by financial concerns or bureaucratic blindness.

Physician-assisted suicide, the so-called merciful response to the dying, has been enacted while palliative care has been ignored. Palliative care does not seek to either hasten or slow the process of dying. It provides emotional, spiritual and physical comfort to the patient in the last stage of life. In Canada, Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu has sponsored a private member’s bill, C-277, “An Act providing for the development of a framework on palliative care in Canada.” It has received extensive support and is likely to pass in the House of Commons. This will ensure that palliative care becomes more widely available. As I have written before, my family was truly blessed to be able to provide palliative care at home for our mother because of the incredible support of the Community Care Access Centre nursing team. Unfortunately, that kind of care is only sporadically available.

Caring for the most vulnerable among us, at the beginning and at the end of life, is a measure of a civilized society. As Christians, we should speak up and encourage positive efforts like Bill C-277. Most of all, we should reach out to those close to us who are in need of assurance and assistance as they near the end of their lives.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who ministered tirelessly to the dying, pray for us. Saint Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us.

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