OUTLOOK - Since June 2016 Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) has been legal in Canada, changing the Criminal Code so that medical practitioners could help patients end their life without breaking the law.
The number of medically assisted deaths in this country has grown steadily each year since then, with a 35% increase from 2020 to 2021 according to Statistics Canada. Researchers suggest the increase can be explained by a greater awareness of MAID as an end-of-life option. But a Saskatchewan woman wants people to know about another option available to families, that being hospice care.
Dianne Antoneshyn was “one of the most generous and caring people you would ever meet,” said daughter Tina Thompson. “No matter what was going on she had a smile on her face.”
Dianne, who was from Delisle, was happy following a successful cataract surgery that allowed her to read and watch TV. But when her daughter noticed a potential problem they returned to the eye surgeon who sent her for a CT scan. The resulting scan was three pages long and Tina said, “Our whole lives changed from that day.”
Dianne had stage four lung cancer, two lesions on her brain, a 6.5-centimeter aneurysm in her abdomen, and cancer near her kidneys. “It was all through her,” Tina said, “and we soon learned there was no treatment.”
That night, Dianne took a fall at home so was taken to the hospital to get checked. She never returned home.
“She had ten treatments of radiation on her brain, not to prolong her life, but just to hold it still for a little while and bring the swelling down to try and help with her headaches,” Tina explained. But after spending five weeks in two different hospitals on three different wards Tina knew the hospital wasn’t the right place for them. “We weren’t going home,” she said, “and we knew that, so we were sent to palliative.”
That move was not something Tina was initially comfortable with. “As a kid I always feared palliative,” she said. “Palliative was where you went to die, and I knew mom was going to die but that just made it real.”
But the welcome they received as they walked through the door set the tone for the experience. “They were wonderful in palliative. I was crying when we walked in and they helped me, too.” Her mom was there for three weeks but since palliative care usually lasts for just a couple of weeks, another plan needed to be made.
Hospice care: "absolutely amazing"
A social worker at the hospital recommended an option that was new to Tina. “We were told about the hospice center. I didn’t know what hospice was. I had never even heard of hospice,” she said. They agreed to the idea and Tina remarked, “I am so glad they offered it to us. It was absolutely amazing.”
The word hospice is derived from Latin hospitum and refers to a place of rest and protection for the ill and weary. Hospice care focuses on the comfort and quality of life of a person with a serious illness who is approaching the end of life.
Dianne was moved to Hospice at Glengarda in Saskatoon and Tina says she simply can’t say enough about the experience. “It’s more of a home environment,” she said. Her mom’s room had a fireplace, big screen TV, sitting area and big windows. “It was bright, comfortable and just a beautiful room.”
Meals are served on glass plates, cutlery comes wrapped in a cloth napkin, and patients receive extra portions of food they particularly love. “It was just so wonderful. They treated my mom so well. It’s a community, and together they look after your people. They are so good.”
A request to bring in her mom’s cat for a visit was accepted and the cat stayed right through to the end. “He was a celebrity there,” Tina said with a laugh. “Nurses would come and get him and let him roam around and he became a therapy cat.” Other families appreciated the animal too, especially a mom whose daughter was dying. She would come and get the cat so the daughter could spend time with it.
The interaction between families became an important part of the hospice experience, one which grew after Tina began accessing the kitchen and pantry available to families. “I’m a baker and so I took advantage of that,” Tina remarked. “I baked my mom every single thing she wanted before she died; carrot cake, muffins, cinnamon buns, all her favourite things.”
When she baked, she also made enough to give to all the nurses and the other families in the hospice at the same time. “Once we started using the kitchen the families started coming down and we got to know each other, so that was huge,” Tina said. “The cooking brought the families together and we all kind of leaned on each other.”
A special aspect of the hospice experience was the presence of a music therapist who would play any song requested by a patient. The therapist made a recording of Dianne’s heartbeat just two days before she died and then recorded two songs with the heartbeat in the background. “It was beautiful,” Tina said. “For the first two weeks after she died the only thing that would calm my heart was to listen to her heartbeat and those songs.”
In 2021 the Third Federal Annual Report of Medical Assistance in Dying was released by the government and among the concerns expressed by Canadians was a desire to have MAID available to those dealing with pain and suffering. However, Tina said the hospice had a tremendous capability to deal with pain her mom experienced. “They always asked about her pain,” she said. “It wasn’t even questioned. They gave her the pain medication she needed. But she wasn’t zonked out, either. The pain management is incredible.”
All jurisdictions in Canada saw an increase in the use of MAID according to the latest studies, with Saskatchewan seeing the highest percentage increase year over year. Nationwide there has been a 17% increase in the number of medical practitioners who provide MAID.
“We hear about MAID all the time,” Tina said. “Everybody knows about that, but hospice is not talked about. It’s a delicate topic. It’s people dying. But people need to know so that they don’t fear it. The hospice staff knows how to go about it and they treat people with such dignity. It’s a really incredible place and more people need to know about it.”
Tina’s mom died March 1 with Tina’s arms wrapped around her and holding her hand as she took her last breath. The loving care Dianne received prompted Tina to want to do something to support the hospice that had given them so much support.
Fundraising effort draws huge crowd and support
Drawing on her love of baking, Tina and her niece organized a very large bake sale for a day of fundraising efforts that included a BBQ, candy table, bouncy castles, door prizes, raffles, 50/50 draw and more in the town of Delisle. “I wanted to do something to honor my mom,” Tina explained, “and to raise money and awareness of the hospice.”
With everything donated and a steady stream of people throughout the day, the event raised more than $12,000 for the hospice, thanks to a team of two dozen people committed to the effort.
“All this money went to a very good cause,” Tina remarked. “I wanted to give to the hospice for what they gave us. I am so grateful for how they prepared us and how they treated my mom and us.”
Tina says the option of hospice care is one that is open to everyone and she simply wants more people to know it is available. “We knew what was coming but they made it easier to deal with. We were sorry for the reason we were there but we were lucky to be there.”
With continued study and discussion in Canada surrounding end-of-life care, Tina just wants people to know about options that exist but aren’t talked about enough. “I wanted people to know who my mom was,” Tina shared, “but I needed people to know about the hospice.”