The federal Parliament is preparing to adopt Bill C-7 extending the conditions of admissibility for medically assisted dying to people who, though suffering, may still have many years to live and who are not necessarily at the end of life. Maria-Régina shares a testimonial about her involvement in SASMAD (service of spiritual accompaniment of sick or elderly people at home).

Ellen: Maria-Regina, you are part of the Sasmad Team. Describe for us your involvement in Sasmad and tell us about the Service itself.

Maria-Regina: With pleasure. I am part of the Sasmad Service of the Catholic Diocese of Montreal. I joined the team a little over two years ago. We serve numerous sectors on the island of Montreal, in Laval and Repentigny. The Service has been in existence for more than 25 years. It was established to meet the great need for a human and spiritual presence experienced among the elderly and the sick who are isolated in their homes. Requests for accompaniment come from CLSCs, communities, parishes, families and from individuals themselves. We have a broad (and multilingual) network of volunteers to provide regular accompaniment consisting of personalized pairing of a client with a volunteer. And it is free of charge.

In adapting to this difficult context of the pandemic, we provide accompaniment by telephone at this time. We have set up a crisis and spiritual support line. We are hoping that this service will be ongoing.

When dealing with the spiritual dimension, it involves everything that fosters life for the person who is being visited. We are not catechists or therapists or social workers. Our volunteers receive basic training in responsive listening and how to be present for the other, in a manner that respects their dignity and is non-judgmental. We bring the values of compassion, welcoming, openness and deep humanity to our service. We also provide for accompaniment in the religious sense for those who ask. A person may, for instance, want to talk with a priest, a rabbi, an imam. Perhaps they would like to pray with the volunteer or receive Communion or other sacrament. The person visited is the focus of the encounter. Listening may sound easy at first, but it is a long learning process, an inner attitude in which ‘the ear learns to incline’ to the words of the other person. Everything is based on what they want to share, whether it be a part of their history, their love for their bird or their cat, their memories of the past, their griefs, their daily routine, their achievements, their suffering, their feelings, their wish to play cards or look at photographs, to say out loud what they are holding inside and would never express to their children, or to share their beliefs. They may also want to pray, ask questions, talk about their concerns, etc. … As you can see, the spiritual dimension is quite large.

Ellen: In connection with today’s theme, ‘Choosing to hope and live,’ tell us, Maria, do you encounter situations of great suffering? Have you ever had people who sought or who were interested in ‘medically assisted dying?’

MR: Oh yes! I had one situation that I will share with you. A situation that was very emotional and that made me think a great deal. But to begin with, let me ‘set the scene,’ as they say. In telling about this situation, I am aware that it is a very delicate and sensitive subject. We are today in a social context of great change, where laws have been passed for some years already regarding the right to hasten death and end the life of a sick person, subject to certain conditions. Federal legislation, through Bill 7, is proposing to expand the criteria of admissibility for ‘medically assisted dying.’ This raises concerns for me, but my intention is not to begin a debate about that here.

The sad situation of Mr. Daniel, which affected me deeply.

This is a gentleman in his 70s, married with children and grandchildren and having retired some years ago. He has very generously authorized me to speak about what he lived through, the suffering involved and the lessons he drew from it. I appreciate very much the fact that he has allowed me to share his story with you. 

Mr. Daniel, before he fell ill, was an active retiree caring for his wife, who was losing her autonomy to a considerable degree. He was her main natural caregiver, aside from which she was receiving some other services. Quite suddenly, Mr. Daniel lost all use of his legs. He had contracted a virulent virus that attacked the nerves in his extremities: Guillain-Barré syndrome. He was hospitalized immediately, and his situation unfortunately worsened. He had to undergo a tracheotomy to help him breathe. His condition was further complicated with synchronization difficulties affecting his respiration, eating and speaking.

His experience in the hospital was extremely difficult. Not only because of the sudden degradation of his health, already so stressful in itself, but, sadly, on account of the additional pressure he was under from the medical staff. On many occasions he would tell me that they had offered to provide him ‘medical assistance in dying.’ Once in particular, he described how one of them had commented that, in his condition, he would spend the rest of his days staring at the ceiling. What quality of life would he have? When he first spoke to me about it, I was in shock, upset and speechless. Inside I was saying, ‘It’s not possible to suffer through this - what he has had to endure, my Lord!’

Each time they proposed ‘medically assisted dying’ to him, adding that he would not have to feel a thing, he shook his head no. Although he could not speak, his hearing was fine, he was perfectly lucid, and his awareness was not affected. His will to live was inshakeable. He had no desire to shorten his life voluntarily. He told me this again just recently, adding that he would pray every day.

This behaviour on the part of the medical staff and their efforts to prepare the process of his potential euthanization using the term ‘medically assisted dying’ caused him fear and anxiety, as he described it to me. One can only imagine! In his vulnerable state, he was imagining what they could do to him. He was in fear in the very hands of those caring for him - the irony!

His children were required to intervene when the medical care team asked them to come together. The children became their father’s spokespersons. They requested an end be put to this pressure, and that no one suggest ‘medically assisted dying’ to their father again. Their demand was respected.
What happened to Mr. Daniel? How did his situation turn out?

Finally a new doctor came to see him. He examined the problem in terms of his airways and capacity to swallow. He sent him for some specialized tests and proposed an operation that would help. Mr. Daniel consented on the spot. The operation was a success, and Mr. Daniel regained his ability to breathe and swallow and, little by little, to speak. Following months of being hospitalized, he was transferred for some weeks to a CHSLD. After a while there, he opted to return home.

When I received his request for spiritual accompaniment through the health system, Mr. Daniel was already back home with his wife. But the memory of what he had been through had left its mark, and he was in need of human and spiritual support and wanted to share his experience. He also felt cut off, since he was no longer about to get outside.

What is striking when you meet Mr. Daniel is his zest for life. I was moved by the confidence in his voice when he and his wife welcomed me in their kitchen. His painful experience had not affected in the least his joie de vivre. He was even cracking the odd joke. Today, he has begun to walk, a step at a time. His physiotherapy is going well.

As we speak today, he is able to get out of bed on his own. He does a few steps every day with his walker. He is of course happy when he is improving. He loves being at home, being able to go out and see his family, happy that he and his wife can see and talk with each other.
I asked Mr. Daniel what message he would like to share concerning his experience and what he had learned:

‘‘Fight to the end, to the end of the life as it comes.’‘ –and- ‘‘God is master of our destiny.’'

The message is a powerful one, shared with me with perfect conviction for our sake. I see him attached to life right until the end. He knows all the effort he must invest in each day. He is not looking through rose-coloured glasses. He knows what it will take. But his love of life is stronger. His faith is rooted deep in his heart. He told me again that he prays every day. He has given me a great witness of conviction to the value of life, this sacred life.

To watch her entire testomonial, please click here (in French only)