The last of a three-part series examines living while dying: Exit strategies.
On a warm summer day in 2011, Alain Berard learned he would die from a disease that will eventually take away his ability to move, swallow or breathe on his own, before it kills him.
Then he started having trouble swallowing.
His heart, blood and thyroid gland were checked before a specialist saw the tremors and quivering at the back of his tongue.
A lumbar puncture and brain scans were ordered, to rule out multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders, and as each test came back negative, Mr. Berard’s panic grew. He remembered the pictures on TV only months earlier of former Montreal Alouettes star Tony Proudfoot, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease, an illness that normally ends in death within two to five years.
“I would have taken any other diagnosis before ALS,” Mr. Berard, now 48, says.
ALS is one of the most devastating diseases known to man, an incurable illness that attacks the nerve cells in the brain. But ALS is also a disease apart, because it allows patients to create what neurologist Dr. Angela Genge calls an “exit strategy” — and we can all learn from them how to better prepare for our own deaths.
“We tend to live our lives as if life is infinite,” says Dr. Genge, Mr. Berard’s doctor and a director of the ALS clinic at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.
“These patients go from that mindset to, ‘I’m dying, and I’m going to die a death in which I become disabled.’ This disease becomes extremely scary.”
But then two things change: most people recover from the diagnosis, psychologically, Dr. Genge says. “They know what is going to happen to them, and then each signpost along the way is another step, another conversation,” she said. What is it you need to do before you die? How much do you want us to do to keep you alive?
“It is very common that they want a promise from their doctor, that when they don’t want to live, they can stop living. They can die. They want control over what will happen.”
Mr. Berard is now three-and-a-half years into his dreaded diagnosis. He looks incongruous, sitting in his wheelchair. The pieces don’t fit: He is six feet, three inches tall, with broad shoulders and chest. Yet he is speaking frankly about whether he would ever accept a feeding tube in his stomach, or a tracheotomy — a surgical incision in his windpipe so that a ventilator could pump air into his lungs.
His wife, Dominique, a schoolteacher, has been taught the Heimlich maneuver and what to do if Mr. Berard suddenly starts choking. She is petite, but strong. She is preparing for the day she will have to take over complete care of her husband, “because I will be like a child, like a baby,” Mr. Berard says.
He doesn’t know yet how much he would be prepared to endure, or, if his condition worsens after Quebec’s “medical aid in dying” law takes effect, whether he would consider asking his doctor to help end his life
“It’s always a debate. What would I want for myself, and for my family?”
As the Supreme Court of Canada weighs lifting the federal prohibition on assisted suicide, in Quebec, the hypothetical will soon become real.
The Quebec law is expected to go into effect at the end of this year. A special commission established to set the ground rules for assisted death will begin work next month.
Some believe assisted suicide is already occurring in far less desperate ways — with the help of doctors.
“I have spoken with physicians who have been involved directly in the process. I know for a fact that it does occur on a regular basis,” Dr. Michael Wyman, a past president of the Ontario Medical Association said.
Dr. Jeff Blackmer, the Canadian Medical Association’s director of ethics, acknowledged there are anecdotal reports doctor-assisted deaths are occurring in Canada.
“But I think it’s important to note that I have never had a doctor tell me, either in person or online or otherwise, that they have participated in this type of activity. Never once,” Dr. Blackmer said.
Last summer at the Canadian Medical Association’s annual general council meeting in Ottawa, some doctors said dying farm animals are treated more humanely than patients, and that there are times when the most compassionate thing to do is to stop a heart beating.
People with ALS fear two things: dying by choking, or dying by suffocation. Dr. Genge tells her patients: These are not untreatable problems you have to suffer through. “We can manage every one of those symptoms so there is no suffering,” she said.
“The disease itself put you in a certain state. But the only way you die from ALS itself is by respiratory failure, and if you remove that piece by going on a ventilator, then you literally continue until other organs, like the heart, fail,” Dr. Genge said. One patient who died last year had been on a ventilator, at home, for 17 years.
Without ventilation, the prognosis is two to five years.
He and Dominique have installed a lift on the ceiling above his bed in a specially renovated room. He has chosen where he will be cremated and buried. “I can go and see where I’m going to be.” He is preparing a Power Point presentation for his funeral — photos of himself with his girls, Noemie, 20, and Charlotte, 17, and videos of his impersonations of Quebec politicians.
“I’m in a wheelchair. This I can cope with,” says Mr. Berard. “But there will be a time that it will be too difficult for me and my family to see me in this condition.”
He supports Quebec’s law that could give people like him a more gentle death, should they choose it.
“I consider it as an option, like a feeding tube, or a tracheostomy. It’s like a treatment for the end of life, when the illness is too difficult to cope with,” he says.
“When you say, you know what? I’ve had enough. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
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