Choked to death: A personal perspective on dyingJune 16, 2016
Since my childhood I’ve had a curiosity about death. What happens when we die? Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about it?
My personal views on life after death continue to evolve. I’ve come to the firm conclusion that we don’t talk about death because we don’t know the answer to the first question and that creates fear within us, so we avoid the issue despite the high probability we will face it one day.
A diagnosis of cancer at 22 was gasoline for the curiosity I had burning around death. There’s nothing like facing the distinct possibility of your own death to prompt further contemplation on the matter. Initially I had comfort with the prospect of dying young, but that faded with a recurrence that was preceded by a vision to use my life to help others like me.
Two diagnoses of acute leukemia in my twenties were followed by two bone marrow transplants from my dad and, at one time, a month in ICU on life-support in a drug -induced coma. I’ve spent more time with death than you can imagine — planning for it, hoping against it, literally touching it and pulling back.
In my work at Young Adult Cancer Canada, I deal with young adults facing the end of their lives daily, and while I’m committed to using my professional energy and resources to help them deal with cancer and life, they aren’t the primary driver behind my connection to the assisted dying cause.
My grandmother is.
Nanny had an incredible 86 years. She had four children, eight grand kids, and four great-grand kids at the time of her death. Family first for her. She was the sweetest, an amazing cook, baker, and home-maker, and my bro and I had the benefit of a deep connection with she and Gramps, spending tons of time with them from a very young age.
University grad party hosted by Nanny & Gramps
Nanny also had Huntington’s, and for 86 years, it was a relative non-issue as she lived very well with it. Those who knew could recognize her movements, and choking on food during meals happened, but it really had very little impact on her quality of life. Until her final year.
Her symptoms worsened in her last year. She knew what I now know, a massive percentage of patients with Huntington’s die from aspiration pneumonia. They choke to death.
There is plenty of fear surrounding death without the worry that it will come from choking on your next meal.
Nanny knew the possibilities facing her, and with her very forward thinking, she wanted one thing in her final days — a one-way ticket to Switzerland, where she could control her exit from this life.
She never took that trip, and she spent her last year in and out of the ER as she continuously choked on her food, aspirated, and developed pneumonia.
I took my girls, who were four and two at the time, to visit Nanny regularly in that last year. I was squeezing in as many visits as I could. We had donuts and they drew pictures, ran in the halls, and played in the elevator. Those memories are precious for me.
And I would trade them instantly to give her a more peaceful death. A death she wanted. A death she was denied.
I hope Canada’s Senators have the courage to amend bill C-14 to reduce suffering and empower Canadians to control the end of their lives as the Carter decision instructed. I hope Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada have the compassion and open minds to accept those adjustments.
For my Nanny and all Canadians,
Dad, Husband, Cancer Survivor, Advocate