Island Health debuts program to help families cope with assisted dying

Island Health has responded to the issue of medically assisted death by creating an infrastructure that includes 39 doctors and nurse practitioners trained in the procedure and more than 325 assessors involved in examining people to consider their eligibility.

The organization is also approaching the issue from the perspective of friends and loved ones of those who have chosen a medically assisted death.

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Oceanna Hall, who is part of Island Health’s Spiritual Health Program, will lead a twice-monthly “Grief is a Journey” bereavement group aimed at helping people understand their reactions to such deaths.

“It’s a process of moving through all of the feelings that come up for us because death is still not a subject that we commonly talk about in our culture, especially here in North America,” Hall said. “There can be a lot of stigma to how any unique individual feels about the choice their family member or friend has made.”

Some might have a sense of relief that the suffering is over, others might be distressed about the choice.

Hall said the geographic area covered by Island Health, which includes Vancouver Island and mainland communities north of Powell River, has a relatively high number of medically assisted deaths — with 575 from June 2016 to Aug. 20 this year.

The numbers date to when the federal government introduced legislation making medically assisted dying legal.

“If you look at the history, Sue Rodriguez really brought that to the forefront and created an environment where choosing was very important here,” she said. “I think we’re much more aware, maybe, and focused, and dignity for dying has quite a large following here.”

Rodriguez, a North Saanich resident, had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when she died with help from an anonymous doctor in 1994, after losing a legal challenge to the Criminal Code, which didn’t allow assisted death.

Hall said her group is filling a role in dealing with bereavement.

“In the past, Victoria Hospice has been doing all of the bereavement support and has been doing a great job,” she said.

Hall said the group setting she oversees can involve a different process “because it calls into question for a lot of people that whole aspect of morality, religious-belief systems.

“For some people, there is judgment around making this decision for yourself, but it also has given us autonomy around choosing how we want to end our lives that we’ve never had before legally in Canada.”

The groups are conducted to make people feel at ease, Hall said.

“What I want to ensure is that there is an element of safety and non-judgment so that people feel that they can express their feelings and emotions.”

Hall said previous sessions organized to address the assisted-dying issue have gone well, and new sessions begin Thursday, 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Victoria Health Unit, 1947 Cook St.

From there, they will be held the first and third Thursday of each month. There is no charge.

Contact Hall at 250-886-1077.

Note to readers: This story has been corrected.

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