Never mind assisted-dying, our health care system needs to change the way it deals with the natural end of life
I’ve spent much of my career in the health care field, but it took a very personal experience to drive home just how poorly prepared health care providers are to help us through the one certain life-experience that awaits us all: death.
It happened in a hospital in southern Ontario. My father-in-law, Ijaz Ahmad, who lived with insulin-dependent diabetes for 35 years, went into the hospital for a partial foot amputation due to a bone infection.
Prior to surgery, a routine diagnostic test was performed requiring dye to be inserted into his bloodstream. After the surgery, the dye put him into kidney failure while it was being metabolized. Within a day of the surgery all of his organs started to fail and he was put on life support for what we were told would be two to three days so his organs could rest and strengthen — after which, we were told, “the doctors would bring him back.”
He spent the next 18 days on life support. And what became clear over that long 18-day ordeal is that what had clearly become the end of his life would have been unnecessarily prolonged depending on which of the eight doctors we interacted with was treating him that day.
Like so many families who have had the difficult but essential conversation with an aging parent around their end-of-life wishes, we had spoken with him about his wishes. He was clear he did not want to be on life support.
The eight doctors who treated my father-in-law all had different ideas about what those wishes meant, and how involved the family should be in making treatment decisions. This inconsistency — the waiting, the arguing, the feeling of powerlessness — was our family’s worst experience with a health care system of which we are so often proud.
Some of the doctors acknowledged his wishes but said life support was an essential part of the treatment plan; it was just a temporary measure to aid in his recovery. Others made very little effort to consult with us, and another outright refused! Another doctor assured us he would “bounce back,” though nurses told us this was increasingly unlikely and that the doctor was prone to sugar-coating discussions with families.
Because of this inconsistency, different members of my family were hearing different things — and that made it even more difficult for us to make a decision we all felt comfortable with. Finally, I pulled aside the latest doctor treating my father-in-law and asked him for an absolutely frank and direct discussion. Only then were we able to make an informed decision that respected my father-in-law’s wishes and provided as much comfort as possible to our family.
On my father-in-law’s 18th day on life support, and on what was to be the final day of his life, a new doctor was treating him. This doctor had trained and practiced in the U.K., and had only recently started to work in Ontario. His European training and experience gave him a different perspective on end-of-life care, and one for which we were grateful.
In Europe, the societal conversation on end-of-life care is more advanced than in Canada — they have grappled publicly with these essential issues of decision-making in health care for many years, and physicians have therefore become more comfortable discussing end-of-life decisions with their patients and families.
Not only is this an essential conversation we need to normalize as families and as a society, it is something our health care system must take on as an essential part of its work. All doctors must be trained to discuss end-of-life care in a direct and compassionate way with patients and their families. This will only become more important as people live longer, and as their health issues become more complex as they reach the end of their lives.
Over the last few years, Canadians have engaged in an impassioned debate on assisted death, a debate that culminated in landmark — and controversial — legislation in Parliament. But assisted death is just a small part of the issue.
As my family’s experience illustrates, end-of-life care and the difficult discussions surrounding that care are too inconsistent — inconsistent between institutions and inconsistent between doctors within a single hospital. It is something we can and must fix.
Surrounded by family and friends my father-in-law peacefully passed away within minutes of removing the breathing tube. He was 66 years old. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
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