Registed Nurses' Association of Ontario

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Watching someone suffer takes a lot out of loved ones

Maureen Taylor opens up her journal and flips to the entry on Valentine's Day 2013. It simply reads: "He's bringing up Switzerland."

"He" refers to her now deceased husband, Donald Low, a professor at the University of Toronto and microbiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, widely regarded for his role in steering the city through the 2003 SARS crisis.

Low was diagnosed with a brain tumour in February 2013. Upon receiving the news, he began exploring assisted death options with his wife. One idea they discussed was to travel to Switzerland, where assisted death is permitted by law.

"Don was always realistic about his diagnosis. He knew it was terminal," says Taylor. "He accepted that fate."

Taylor sat down with her 68-year-old husband less than two weeks before he died in September 2013. She said: I know you're frustrated about not having the choice to die. Would you agree to do an interview? “Do you think somebody would care what I think?” he asked.

"Honey, I think people would care," Taylor, a former reporter, responded.

Two days later, he sat down with Cancer View Canada, which helps to connect Canadians to online services, information and resources for cancer control, to film an impassioned seven-minute video in which he pleads for Canada to allow assisted death. By now, he had lost his sight, and his hearing.

“What the end is going to look like, that’s what's bothering me the most,” he says in the video. “They give you a very simple way out. You drink a cocktail and you fall asleep and you do this in the presence of your family. In countries where it’s legal, it’s quite easy to do. In countries where it’s not legal, it’s pretty well impossible.”

"He was practical and he was brave," says Taylor. "I never saw him feel sorry for himself."

Low died without knowing what Taylor was going to do with the video, which has received just under one-million views on YouTube. She says she will continue to speak out on this topic, and has agreed to appear as a panellist for RNAO’s End-of-Life Care: Voices and Perspectives keynote presentation following the association’s 2015 annual general meeting (AGM). The panel will take place on April 18, and will feature voices from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds, including palliative care and parish nursing, and law. Taylor promises to also question candidates in this year's federal election, pressing them on their stance on assisted death.

These are conversations that take a lot out of her, Taylor admits.

"It brings me back to those sad days, when Don was so sick and suffering, "she says. "It keeps my grief more alive...than Don would have wanted it to be."
She's hoping health-care providers, policy makers and the public will take up the charge in this ongoing work to ensure everyone has a choice at the end of their lives.

"I miss him enormously," she says of Low. "I could (have cared for him) for the rest of my life, if it meant being with (him), but that's not what he wanted."