Walking with my father through the temptation of euthanasia
As executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Association of Canada, I have spoken out at a national level against the legalization of euthanasia. I have advocated for conscience protection for people who can’t participate in causing the death of a patient. In His infinite wisdom the Lord prepared me for this role in many ways. The most personal and profound preparation was when my own father made a plea for euthanasia in 2009, some three years before I accepted my leadership role.
My father’s request – uncharacteristic for a man known for his optimism and faith – came near the end of his life when his belief in himself and his usefulness to others seemed to fail.
My father was born in April 1929, just months before the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression. Despite the impact of the crash, he had happy memories of growing up in a tight-knit family in Fredericton, N.B. My dad’s sunny view of the world seemed hardwired into his heart and was fuelled by his faith in God.
My father’s main motivation throughout his life was to help people. In the 1950s he met and married my mother, a nurse who cared for children crippled by polio. He enjoyed a successful career as a life insurance salesman – and credited his success to my mother’s positive influence. They were always in love. We had a happy home and experienced our father as lenient, generous, quick to forgive and fun loving. Perhaps his only obvious weakness was frequently being late for appointments. Once he almost missed my sister’s high school graduation because of a sailboat that stalled for lack of wind.
My father believed in God. His parents did not attend church because they were profoundly hearing impaired, but he remembered sitting in a church pew as a boy with his two brothers under the watchful eye of an aunt and uncle who sat a few rows behind them. When he was 20 Dad became an usher at Brunswick St. Baptist Church, retiring from the role at 80, which must be a record. He also served on the board of deacons.
In his early 60s the deacons prayed over him for healing of a bowel cancer which had spread to his lung. My dad shared with me that he felt something like an electric current move from his head to his feet when they laid hands on him. He was never bothered by that cancer again, and after that his faith just kept growing.
In his late 70s health problems once again threatened my dad’s life. Retired, and a grandfather of six, my dad was active in several volunteer organizations and service clubs. He donated generously to charities. He was active, and fun and seemed invincible.
Initially I underreacted to news that Dad had squamous cell skin cancer on the bowl of his right ear. The cancer returned even after a plastic surgeon thought he removed all of the tumour. Eventually, the family that loved Dad so much had to accept the medical fact that his cancer could not be treated. I do not want to sugarcoat what happened next.
It was a terrible cancer.
In the two years from diagnosis to Dad’s passing, the side of my handsome father’s head eroded and his features were distorted. Eventually a large bandage was required to stop the discharge that flowed incessantly from the wound. Still, he visited friends at coffee shops, church and the service clubs to which he belonged. But finally, the care required was too much for my mother, who was deeply distraught by the impending loss of the love of her life and her inability to help him.
Dad moved to the hospital.
This was the most difficult period of my father’s life. He hated hospitals. He hated silence. He hated sitting still. But he never complained. I’m sure it bothered him to see my mother travelling to the hospital every day, and I’m positive he was concerned about my brother, sister and I travelling long distances to see him. While he felt very little physical pain, his view of himself shifted from someone who was always helping others to someone who was only a burden.
I did not see my father’s crisis coming. I had never questioned his value as a person. To me, his value was as clear as the value of oxygen in the air. But my father was afraid. One day, during a meeting with the palliative care physician, my dad asked for help. As the conversation continued it became clear he wanted the doctor to end his life.
After living through my father’s story, I am haunted by the thought of people who have no one to help them find meaning in their last days.
I was stunned, but determined not to react. While there are circumstances when patients need to be clearly informed it is morally wrong to consent to ending their own life, I heard and understood my dad’s request for euthanasia as a cry for help. The physician, a Christian and a member of CMDA Canada, declined my father’s request immediately because of his faith and also because in 2009 euthanasia had not yet been legalized in Canada.
Sadly, if my dad made his request today, especially in Ontario or Nova Scotia, the doctor would have been required to make a referral to another physician, who would do an assessment for euthanasia.
Most of the physicians in our association are unable to refer because they feel that it would make them an accomplice to an immoral act. Today, my father would likely have been assessed by a physician who performs euthanasia, and provided my dad was deemed to be competent – which I’m sure he would have been – his request would likely have been approved.
All of this could have happened without consultation with me, my mother or the rest of the family. If the federal legislation currently being considered by Parliament is passed, my father’s life could have ended that very day and the rest of his story would never have been told.
I left my dad and the hospital that day dismayed. I asked the Lord how I could help my father in this low point in his life. Sitting by his bedside one day I asked my dad, "Why is it that you want to end your life?" He answered clearly and quickly. "It is because I can’t help anybody anymore."
I immediately resolved to help him see how he was helping others. Dad had made a donation to help pay for a large renovation project at his church. He told me one day how much he wished he could see the new space. His minister and I arranged to take Dad (catheter and all) to the church to see the results of the project.
On the way out the door of the hospital that day Dad encountered a man sitting alone on a bench. My father said the man’s name and offered his condolences for the recent loss of the man’s wife. I saw how my father’s compassion touched the grieving man.
The members who were at the church were amazed to see my very ill father’s dedication, like they were seeing Lazarus rise from the dead.
When we returned to the hospital later that day, I reminded my father about all the people he had helped just on that day alone. Later, in dad’s final weeks, a pastor from another church asked if he could visit him. Dad had encouraged him many years before when he had experienced a vocational crisis. My father welcomed him to his bedside. The pastor left that visit in tears, amazed my father was concerned more with the pastor’s problems than with his own imminent death.
Most of all, dad allowed us to love him in his time of need. This was the greatest gift of all. I helped the nurses change his bandages, giving something back for all he had done for me. I knew Jesus identifies with the sick and suffering, so while I was cleaning his wound I was aware I was tending to the wounds of Christ (Matthew 25:40). This was a profound privilege. I will never forget it. Other family members, like my sister, brother and their families, came home for extended periods to be with him and care for him. We were all blessed by this time, even though it was sometimes painful.
After living through my father’s story, I am haunted by the thought of people who have no one to help them find meaning in their last days. I am concerned especially with the poor, the disabled, people with mental health concerns, the isolated and lonely, and those in prison. When their spirit lags, and when evil tempts them to forfeit the last chapter of their lives through euthanasia, who will be there to serve the Christ who dwells within the human heart?
I believe Christians in Canada must give hope to those approaching the challenges of death, and speak out against laws that discard God’s gift of human life. We must also protect the doctors who, like my father’s on that day, are unable to participate in euthanasia because of their moral convictions. Most importantly we must pray our society comes to realize that only God should determine the time of our death, not us.
Dad’s funeral, when it did arrive, was sad, as they always are, but held a strong undercurrent of resurrection joy amid those old, beautiful evangelical hymns. His grandchildren read the Scripture. I gave the eulogy. And as the choir rose to sing "It is Well with My Soul," a lovely and strong beam of light illuminated my family. It streamed into the church, through the face of Christ in the stained-glass window in the balcony, and landed like a miracle on that first pew comforting us with its warmth and light. We took this as a sign from the Lord that Dad had been perfectly on time for his final appointment with God.
Larry Worthen of Dartmouth, N.S., has been the executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Association (www.CMDACanada.org) since 2012.