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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We shouldn't need a one-way ticket to Zurich

Posted: 05/3/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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What would you do in this situation? The patient is paralyzed, incontinent of bowel and urinary functions, unable to take nourishment and obviously in pain. I doubt anyone, regardless of race or religion, would disagree with a lethal injection if the patient were a beloved dog. But humans in most nations are denied this right.

Currently, a tennis partner of mine is in this same condition, along with Alzheimer's disease. His has been a frightful sight to watch as it progressed as surely as night follows day. He no longer knows me, stares day after day at blank walls. I know from past talks he would prefer a dignified death.

Alzheimer's disease has been labelled the Grey Tsunami, and it has huge implications for families and our health-care system. Every 70 seconds, a new case of Alzheimer's disease is diagnosed in North America. This means one in 11 seniors will develop this disease. Currently 5.3 million Americans and 500,000 Canadians suffer from it and related dementia. It's small wonder Alzheimer's disease is the second-most-feared disease.

Some researchers say that it's possible, by a combination of physical and mental activity, to improve brain activity. But there's a problem. My friend was as active physically and mentally as anyone I know. He was an ardent athlete, spoke two languages, devoured figures of the Wall Street Journal daily. Now he can't add 2+2 and I doubt anything could have been done to change this outcome. Once Alzheimer's strikes, the rules of the game are fixed.

Today North Americans are living longer and it's extremely dangerous to get older. Some will develop Lou Gehrig's disease, or a number of other chronic degenerative problems that make life a living hell at the end.

It's ironic that we have a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but no such society for humans. Unfortunately, even expressing an opinion today about assisted death is hazardous. As Voltaire remarked, "It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."

When I express my opinion on assisted death, a vocal minority invariably says I want to exterminate the sick and establish death camps. They question whether I ever went to medical school or why I don't accept God. This is an unjust judgment when I've spent my life saving lives. Moreover, polls indicate a majority of North Americans agree with doctor-assisted death. It's absurd that Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides freedom in so many questionable ways, yet is so inhumane when it comes to the right to die with dignity.

I do not promote assisted death to anyone. But in a democratic nation, we should be allowed to sign a legal document stating if we become thoughtless, incontinent and immobile, we can choose this action.

One of Harvard's most distinguished medical professors once remarked, "The secret of caring for the patient is caring for the patient." But after years of caring for patients, he himself developed a devastating, fatal illness. Just before he committed suicide, he left a note saying, "It's wrong that society forced me to end my life this way without help."

But change is in the air. There's growing support for the people's right to self-determination. Assisted death is now permitted in seven countries and states and is being debated in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Britain.

Recently, Montana's Supreme Court ruled physicians cannot be prosecuted for prescribing lethal medication for terminally ill patients.

Opponents cry that abuses will abound if this legislation is passed. But history proves otherwise. Oregon's legislation was passed in 1998 without triggering an epidemic of assisted deaths. Even in Switzerland, the most liberal of all nations, assisted deaths account for only 0.5 per cent of deaths in that country.

The point is that there should be no need to buy a one-way ticket to Zurich. It's time to talk about it, as no one will care as much about how you die as you will.

See the website www.docgiff.com For comments, info@docgiff.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A19

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