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Searching for Dignity in Death

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When Dr. Don Low passed away recently, most of the stories that I read referred to him as the face of SARS. As the Minister of Health who took the helm just months after SARS I looked to Don and Dr. Sheela Basrur to run Operation Health Protection, the code name for a massive project to revitalize public health in Ontario. Don only recently stepped down after years of painstaking effort to re-build the capacity of Ontario's public health laboratories.

Having the cellphone number of people the calibre of Don and Sheela close at hand is what I like to refer to as a Health Minister's sleeping pill.

His special gift is the ability to take clinical knowledge and to distill it with unsurpassed clarity to the laymen masses (and the generalist governing class from which I was drawn).

Following he release of Don's emotional and riveting video, shot just days before he passed, Don has demonstrated yet again that he is one of Canada's foremost health care communicators in death as in life.

Don's search for dignity in death conjured up strong emotions for me stemming from the experience with my own father's passing in 1992. Stricken on New Year's Day with a massive brain stem stroke my father, once so vital, was reduced to only being able to move his eyes. All the love and medical care in the world couldn't alter the clinical reality of a catastrophic injury without prospect of recovery.

My father died after more than 200 days and for every day since I have wondered if a family's faint hope of recovery accidentally trumped his right to a timely and more dignified, peaceful end.

My personal experience with my father's end of life made me a champion for the development of Ontario's good palliative care model and it's why I believe that every Canadian should be compelled to initiate a Living Will in order to provide advance medical direction in the event of a catastrophic event.

Without such direction the risk is that Doctors and family members will be under too much pressure to sustain life, absent of appropriate consideration for the calibre of the life to be lived by the patient who's voice and wishes may have been forever silenced.

It's also why I support assisted suicide because I believe that our society is sophisticated enough to develop a workable system that is capable of being able to measure not just how long I live but how well I live.