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Orillia woman shares husband's experience with medically assisted death

'(He) was in control. It was the right thing to do,' Cheryl Behan tells audience of her husband's decision, noting death was 'so peaceful'

John Davey lived out his final days with resolve, courage and the knowledge of what was to come.

The Orillia man was born in the United Kingdom and lived an accomplished life. He was an aeronautical engineer, a veteran of the Royal Air Force, a chief accident investigator with De Havilland.

After moving to Orillia, he maintained an active lifestyle, spending his time on the ski hills, on his sailboat and in his garden.

Life threw him a curveball when, at 70 years old, he began showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Four years later, he was diagnosed.

When he entered his 80s, the disease became “very advanced,” his widow, Cheryl Behan, told a crowd of more than 100 people gathered Wednesday at the Best Western Plus Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre.

In 2016, at the age of 84, Davey told his doctor he wanted a medically assisted death. That was before it became legal in Canada in June of that year.

When Bill C-14 became law, Davey told his doctor, “Do your homework. I’ll do mine. Get ready.”

Behan shared hers and Davey’s story as part of the Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH) Foundation’s speaker series.

After Davey developed severe osteoporosis of the spine, during which he experienced a nine out of 10 on the pain scale, he further lost his independence and moved into Birchmere Retirement Residence.

In January 2017, he began having heart problems, and Behan, who has a medical background in neurological disorders, became his nurse.

When the doctor suggested Davey be given a pacemaker to extend his life by approximately a year, the ailing man asked, “What for?”

“I’m on a downhill course. I don’t want another year,” Behan recalled her husband saying.

In early April 2017, Davey, with only a little help from his wife, composed an email and sent it to his physician, indicating he wanted medical assistance in dying. They set a date and time: June 27 at 7 p.m. was when he would die.

But first, he was determined to live a little. On Post-it notes were a few activities he wanted to complete during his remaining months — eat at certain restaurants, check out the ski hills at Blue Mountain one more time, attend a concert.

Three days before he was to die, he and Behan headed down to the Orillia waterfront, where Davey enjoyed a hotdog from French’s Stand.

On June 27, he woke up, had a shower and said his goodbyes to his friends and the staff at Birchmere.

“He was able to get the support and love and thanks from everybody,” Behan said.

Later that day, he had his final meal: a Mediterranean chicken dish prepared by a friend.

After a rest, he took a seat in the family room.

“We chose that location so he could look outside and see the gardens,” Behan said, describing Davey as a “master gardener.”

Despite his condition, Davey’s sense of humour was intact until the end. Knowing he would be buried in what he was wearing that day, he told his wife, “You keep my Birkenstocks.”

Those Birkenstocks remain inside the house at the front door to this day.

When the time came, Davey was given three injections. The first was an anesthetic that put him to sleep in seconds. The second stopped his breathing. The final one stopped his heart.

“And it was all over,” Behan said.

Friends and family were there when he died.

“I asked them all to leave so I could stay with him until he got cold,” Behan recalled.

She described the death as “so peaceful, so serene.”

“John was in control. It was the right thing to do.”

Dr. Tony Reid is the one who administered the injections to Davey. Reid also spoke during Wednesday’s discussion.

“We should remember that we are very lucky in this country to have this privilege,” he said.

Not all doctors are comfortable with the procedure, with many suggesting continued palliative care.

“Even with the best palliative care, I’ve had patients who have had what we call a bad death,” Reid said. “Even the best palliative care can’t relieve everything.”

Some are against medically assisted death on religious grounds, but even the most staunchly opposed have come to accept it, Reid said.

He used the example of a Catholic priest who was against it, until he became terminally ill and opted for a medically assisted death.

“God won’t judge me by how I die,” the priest had said, “but by how I live.”

Such a situation can take its toll on physicians, too, explained OSMH chief of staff Nancy Merrow.

Merrow was a family physician for many years, 10 of which were spent in the area of palliative care.

She recalled a time in the late ’90s when she received a call from a doctor who was “in a state of moral distress.” A patient was near the end of his life and was begging the doctor to help end his suffering.

“He had prescribed everything he knew of … to relieve the pain and he felt he was at the end of his offerings for this patient,” Merrow said.

The doctor began looking into how much of certain medications it would take to end the man’s life painlessly.

“I said, ‘Man, stop and think about what you’re doing here,'” Merrow recalled. “He had gone so far into this man’s suffering with him that he was considering committing a criminal act.”

Her advice worked and the doctor backed off, but it demonstrates the connections physicians can have with their patients, Merrow said.

The goal of Wednesday’s presentation was to educate people about medically assisted dying. It was the fourth talk in the series so far, with previous ones having focused on the opioid crisis, dementia and heart health.

Just the facts

  • Bill C-14 became law June 17, 2016

  • Approximately 7,000 Canadians have died with medical assistance since it became legal

  • The average age of Canadians who receive medical assistance in dying is 72

  • The most common conditions of those who receive medical assistance in dying are end-stage cancers, ALS, and heart and lung diseases

  • Those seeking medical assistance in dying must be at least 18 years old, have valid OHIP cards and have grievous and irremediable medical conditions, and they must be enduring intolerable physical or psychological suffering as a result of their condition

To find out more about medical assistance in dying, click here.

Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is an experienced multimedia journalist and editor who covers Orillia and other parts of Simcoe County.
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