The End: The Death and Life of John Shields

A five and one-half page article in the NY Times by Catherine Porter describes how shortly before John Shields planned to die, he planned his own Irish wake: “old fashioned with music and booze, except for one notable detail – he would be present. Then his family would take him home and he would die there in the morning, preferably in the garden… his favorite spot, rocky and wild.”

Shields, in a Vancouver hospice, suffered from a hereditary disease that caused heart stoppages, inability to use his arms and legs, numbness and excruciating pain. He qualified for Canada’s recently enacted “medical assistance in dying”.

The law allows doctors to provide a series of injections inducing sleep, coma and total paralysis causing death to adults who meet the criteria of intolerable suffering in the final stage of an irreversible medical condition, nearing death, and mentally competent to consent just before the procedure. Some strongly oppose the law, seeing it as immoral, a slippery slope of euthanasia, and a betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath. Shield’s doctor disagreed, feeling that her work was part of a continuum of care in helping people and giving them information to let them choose how to live and die.

For Shields, who valued freedom and independence, the pain of his disease was no longer tolerable; he felt that having control over his death was empowering and that dying openly and without fear could be his most important legacy. Which, as the reporter notes “was saying something” as Shields already had five lifetimes of service as a former priest, civil rights activist, children’s social worker, president of British Columbia’s biggest union, and conservationist.
Due to Shields weakened condition, some compromises were made and both the wake and his death were at the hospice. The wake was both sad and joyous, attended by a crowd of friends and colleagues, and filled with tributes and song.

The next day, in his hospice room, filled with flowers and cedar boughs, he signed the final consent forms, led the group in singing, heard the St. Francis Prayer and loving comments of friends, and after thanking everyone, said “I am ready”. Thirteen minutes after the injections, he died, quietly, quickly, and at peace.

For the complete article by Catherine Porter, see the New York Times article of 5/28/2017 here.