Dr. Donald Low investigated option to 'die with dignity,' wife says
Published Wednesday, September 25, 2013 9:14AM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, September 25, 2013 2:56PM EDT
The wife of the late infectious disease specialist Dr. Donald Low says her husband "widely" investigated his own options for a physician-assisted suicide as his condition worsened.
Maureen Taylor says that her husband – who died on Sept. 18 – looked into the different ways he might have a doctor-assisted suicide, including contacting Switzerland – where it is legal—and researching various drug options.
"The drug he really wanted was a barbiturate. That drug you just take and you fall asleep and you don't wake up – that's the kind of death he wanted, but you can't get your hands on that drug in Canada," Taylor told CTV’s Canada AM.
Low, who rose to prominence in his role guiding Canadians through the SARS crisis a decade ago, died seven months after being diagnosed with a brain stem tumour. He was 68.
Eight days before his death, Low recorded a video message in which he wished opponents of doctor-assisted suicide could "live in his body for 24 hours," because it would likely change their minds.
"In Canada it's illegal, and it will be a long time before we mature to a level where we accept dying with dignity," Low said in comments that also touched on his desire to die without pain, and his envy of countries where physician-assisted suicide is now legal.
Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said Wednesday it’s time for Canadians to discuss assisted suicide and end-of-life care. She said the topic will likely come up when health ministers from across the country meet next week.
"Donald Low's video was very powerful and many people have personally experienced it," Matthews said.
"There are strong opinions on this. I think it's a conversation we need to have."
Matthews wouldn’t reveal her personal opinion on assisted suicide, saying she’s “speaking as health minister for Ontario.”
Although it’s up to Ottawa to decide whether to legalize assisted suicide, the issue affects provincial governments because they’re responsible for health care services, Matthews said.
Taylor said she's surprised her husband’s message has got people talking.
"I didn't think it would get this kind of reaction, but I'm glad this kind of discussion is going on," she said.
She said she helped her husband film the video because she knew that the message would resonate with doctors if it came from a fellow physician.
She added that she was worried they wouldn't be able to finish making it, because her husband's condition was quickly deteriorating at the time.
"He was sick for seven months which was no picnic, he would tell you. But it was really the last couple of weeks where it became unbearable," she said. At the time of recording the video, Low was suffering from compromised vision, hearing and strength.
While the prospect of watching her husband pursue a physician-assisted suicide would have been "absolutely" difficult, Taylor said it was his desire to die without pain and on his terms.
"I think we would have had a nice family dinner. We would have toasted life with the children and the grand-children, and then he would have said goodbye to them. We would have gone up to the bedroom together… I would have kissed him and he would have gone to sleep," she said.
"That would have been nice, but that's not the death he had."
She added that her husband held out until the end, only stating his preference for a doctor-assisted suicide when the pain became unbearable. "We're not talking about a man who would have taken his life five months ago. That's not it at all."
Taylor added that in the final moments of Low's life he was heavily sedated because he could no longer swallow and was choking. "So our moments at the end of his life were nothing you'd want to remember forever. The family and I are going to try and forget those moments."
While physician-assisted suicide is prohibited in Canada, last year the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that the Criminal Code prohibition against it is discriminatory. The court's decision is being appealed by the federal government.
Meanwhile, Quebec became the first jurisdiction in Canada to table right-to-die legislation in June. It has not yet become law.
While advocates of physician-assisted suicide believe patients should have more control and autonomy over their own death, opponents have expressed concerns that it may put vulnerable people who are not capable of making the decision at risk.
Taylor said her husband believed doctor assisted-suicide should only be provided as an option under specific regulations. Those include the presence of a terminal illness verified by multiple doctors – including a psychiatrist who can assess that the person is mentally capable of making the decision -- and that the patient has to be able to take the medication themselves.
She believes Canadians are ready to have a discussion on the issue. "I actually think Canadians are ready to move forward on this. It's the politicians -- we have to get them to catch up," she said
With files from The Canadian Press