'It was a blessing:' Nanaimo widow strongly supports medically assisted dying

By Ian Holmes
February 10, 2019 - 9:35am Updated: February 10, 2019 - 2:27pm

Mary Warr holds a photo of her husband Ernie Warr, who passed away from a medically-assisted death in August 2017. Vancouver Island leads the country with more than 500 patients using the practice in the two-and-a-half years it has been legal.Ian Holmes/NanaimoNewsNOW

NANAIMO — A Nanaimo man's widow says medically assisted dying offered her husband a choice to end a cycle of misery, and it's a choice made more on Vancouver Island than anywhere else in Canada.

Chronic pain caused by a rare genetic disorder became too much for 82-year-old Ernie Warr to handle. His wife Mary said that led to his decision to undergo a medically-assisted death in 2017.

She said the moment her husband introduced the idea will be forever etched in her memory.

“We were driving up the highway and he said 'Chris (family doctor) offered me dying with dignity,' and I just burst into tears," Warr told NanaimoNewsNOW. "I said 'Oh my gosh, he's just offered you a gift.'”

Ms. Warr said Ernie's increased pain and decreased mobility took a significant toll, while a blocked artery in his heart caused further stress and anxiety.

“I guess he was thinking about all of this stuff but I could see him gradually going more and more into himself which bothered me because I didn't like what I was seeing.”

She said Ernie died peacefully in the comfort of their north Nanaimo home on Aug. 15, 2017.

In the lead-up to his death, Ms. Warr said Ernie was rejuvenated, noting he achieved a sense of accomplishment getting their personal affairs in order.

Ernie is far from alone in his choice.

Island Health data showed more than 500 people on Vancouver Island with incurable ailments have died with help from a doctor since the practice was legalized in June 2016. That's more than any other jurisdiction in Canada.

Dr. David Robertson, Island Health’s executive lead on medical assistance in dying, said the practice now accounts for five per cent of all deaths on Vancouver Island.

“We cannot predict where it's going to go but certainly on the island it has taken up by the population at a higher degree of interest than anywhere else in the country.”

Robertson said 40 doctors are trained to administer assisted deaths, which he said most often occur in the patient's home.

“More than 300 family physicians across the island performed assessments in patients that went on to have an assisted death. That's very high, that's more than one-third of family physicians on the island,” he said.

Dying at the hands of a doctor is not universally supported, even by some Island Health employees, Robertson said.

“Assisted dying produces very strong opinions both for and against in almost any place that it's discussed."

Dr. Robertson said it is not surprising to hear opposition, nor is it problematic.

He said the federal government is reviewing whether the practice could be opened up to people who will develop dementia and minors with terminal diseases.

Mentally-capable Canadians 18 and over with irreversible medical conditions causing intolerable suffering can apply for the procedure.

Ernie Warr's son Jeff strongly supported his father's decision.

“We're stronger as a society, it makes us stronger, it's a step in the right direction. But then again it's not for everybody,” he said.

Jeff Warr said he works with twin sisters, one of whom strongly supported a family member's medically-assisted death. The other, he said, was adamantly opposed.

Jeff described the day of his father's passing as a peaceful experience.

“It's a controlled environment with your loved ones around. It's calm, nobody's suffering,” he said. “It's about as nice as dying can possibly be.”


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Round 2: Nanaimo expecting another 15-25 cm. of snow