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Three-quarters of Atlantic Canadians echo dying wish of N.B. woman: poll

CTV News with Hilary Young 4 November 2019

 

FREDERICTON — It was important to Eric Gozna’s wife, Ellen, that she have a choice of when and where she wanted to die.

“She said, ‘Eric, I don’t want to put the children or you through this,’ and she immediately applied for medical assistance in dying,” Gozna said in an interview with CTV News.

The now-retired Fredericton surgeon says it was a decision made after Ellen was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Gozna says it was metastatic cholangiocarcinoma of the biliary tract, and that ultimately, Ellen would develop liver failure.

“Which would mean, she would lose her cognitive ability to ask for MAID,” he said. “Her biggest fear of all was that that would happen before she activated MAID.”

Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) has been legal in Canada since June of 2016.

Under the law, the patient needs to be able to give a final, resounding ‘yes’ in order to receive assistance in dying. But there have been ongoing discussions surrounding those who wish to make an advance, written request for a medically assisted death before they lose the capacity to consent.

Gozna says Ellen made sure that would not be her.  

“She said to me one day, ‘Eric, I dropped a few words yesterday. I think it’s probably time,’” Gozna said.

According to a recent Narrative Research poll of 1,500 Atlantic Canadians, 75 per cent feel that aspect of the law should change.

“It’s a difficult issue. I can absolutely understand why people would want the ability. I mean, in my family, I just had a family member die of dementia and personally, I wouldn’t want to go through that,” UNB Law Professor Hilary Young said. “So I can understand why people, particularly a generation who’s used to making medical decisions for themselves, used to having a lot of control, I can understand why they would want to be able make that decision.”

Young has focused some of her research on the issue, and says this particular issue certainly isn’t simple. She notes that the current law is there to protect vulnerable people.

“We’ve already had a lot of committees and a lot of bodies study the issue and make recommendations. The law that we got doesn’t really reflect the recommendations of most of that committee work and most of those studies. I do think the government was starting out, fairly small ‘c’ conservative, narrow and waiting to see what happens,” she said. “There’s no doubt we’re going to keep having conversations about this, both as a political matter and through the courts.”

Maritime health authorities were tracking information related to MAID, but now those numbers are sent directly to an online portal, built by Health Canada. According to a spokesperson, the federal government will start producing reports in the spring of 2020.

“This expanded data set will contribute to better understanding requests for MAID, insight into the circumstances under which MAID is administered, and the reasons why requests for MAID may go unfulfilled,” states an interim report.

According to the most recent data available, between Jan. 1 – Oct. 31, 2018, there have been 223 Atlantic Canadians request Medical Assistance in Dying. Of those:

  •  Requests denied: Fewer than 7
  •  Cases where the person died prior to completion of the assessment: 30
  •  Total number of medically assisted deaths: 195

Initially, Nova Scotia had a difficult time finding doctors or nurse practitioners to perform MAID. The Nova Scotia Health Authority says they now have 49 providers across the province.

The New Brunswick Medical Society says there should be, and will be, more discussion on the law.

“This is an evolving subject and I think over the years the notion of death and dying has been felt as taboo or something difficult for people to talk about,” said Anthony Knight, chief executive officer of the society. “I think this legislation and the openness to providing people with comfort and reducing and minimizing their pain as they do reach their end of life, has provided insight and I think value for patients and their families and health care practitioners when considering how to provide a good death for New Brunswickers.”

Eric Gozna says a line in one of his grandson’s favourite books sums up his feeling.

“’Death, to the well-organized mind, is but another great adventure,’ and I think that, you know, we should be able to have something to say about the way in which we proceed with that adventure.”

Surrounded by her family and favourite flowers, Ellen Gozna was able to do exactly that.

She died with the help of a doctor at Fredericton’s Chalmers Hospital on Aug. 14, 2018.

Hilary Young is a law professor at the University of New Brunswick.