Ed Ness of Deep Bay will die today.
He’s OK with it; and it’s not like it’s the first time it’s happened.
Ness is in the late stages of lung cancer, which has spread to other parts of his body. He has chosen his own date and time of death under Canada’s medical assistance in dying law, Bill C-14, passed in June of 2016.
“The thought of death doesn’t scare me,” said Ness. “The idea of a slow, agonizing death scares me. I don’t want that at all.”
If all goes according to his plan, Ness, 72, and his wife Gloria, 70, will host a group of 17 friends and family members in a sort of living wake in their Deep Bay home this afternoon (May 30). Following approximately two hours of refreshments, soft music and reminiscing, he will settle into his living room easy chair and a physician will place a needle in his arm to begin the procedure that will end with his final trip from his home in a hearse about an hour later.
Ness wanted to share his story as a way to shed light on Death with Dignity. He said he has been a proponent of the procedure for many years, long before his March 2016 diagnosis of lung cancer, and recoils from the term “suicide” being used to describe it.
“You can’t tell me I’m committing suicide,” said Ness, who was born in Victoria and who worked as a logger before starting his own successful real estate business in Campbell River in 1976. “Suicide is for people who are really depressed and just can’t take it any more and want to end it all.
“That’s not what this is. I’m damn dying now, and it’s moving very quickly.”
The progression of his cancer has given his quest a particular urgency. Under Bill C-14, a patient must apply for the procedure, then be approved under its guidelines by two qualified physicians during a 10-day “period of reflection.” At the end of those 10 days, the patient must again sign a consent before the doctor can perform the procedure.
Ness, citing the example of his brother’s deterioration, was concerned the cancer might spread to his brain and leave him unable to comprehend the consent form.
“You have to have the capacity to consent and you have to sign a document on the date of the procedure,” said Dr. Tanja Daws of Courtenay Medical Clinic. “The patient can only receive the procedure if they know what it means. They can’t get it if they are in a coma or if they’re confused.”
The process itself involves the injection of a sedative that puts the patient into a deep sleep. Then another drug is injected that will stop respiration and the heartbeat.
Just two days before his scheduled procedure, Ness appeared outwardly healthy. He is not bed-ridden and is not connected to oxygen or an intravenous drip. The only outward sign of his illness is a persistent cough in the one lung he he was left with after undergoing a pneumonectomy last November.
The removal of his left lung initially left him feeling much better, Ness said, and he and Gloria were even planning a “bucket list” trip to Machu Picchu this coming winter.
But his cough returned earlier this year, and a CT scan showed the cancer had returned.
“The doctors said if the cancer does come back (following surgery), it will come back as stage 4 cancer and it will be extremely aggressive,” Ness said. “That’s where I am now.
“You look at me, and people say, ‘Ed, you look so healthy’, but this cancer is raging through my body right now. I can feel it. It feels like there’s something alive inside me and it’s moving really quickly.”
In addition to taking charge of the time and nature of his death, Ness has also been hands-on with the administrative details. He has written his own epitaph, which he will read to the family and friends gathered around on Tuesday afternoon. The couple has already completed funeral arrangements. He is also writing his own obituary, and has filled out an adjustment of will and transferred assets to Gloria’s name.
“He’s doing it all himself. He’s always been a take-charge person; nobody else can do anything quite as well as Ed can,” Gloria said with a laugh.
“It’s nice to have the time in advance to choose your death,” Ness said. “Everyone has loose ends they would like to take care of. I’ve had time to do all those things.”
Dr. Daws said she could not speak to specific patient cases, but said Tuesday’s planned gathering at the Ness home is a sort of pre-memorial common in Death with Dignity cases.
“There is always a certain amount of sadness, of course, but it’s good to have a positive memory attached to the patient,” said Daws. “Often, the patient will make a small speech thanking family and friends and saying they’re ready to die. And the family and friends can tell the patient how loved they are.
“It makes it, in a bizarre way, beautiful. And it can leave people with a far better memory than a prolonged battle in ICU or a battle with cancer in hospice or at home.”
Ness took a slightly less philosophical tone to describe the planned gathering.
“When you go to funerals, you talk to this box here,” he said, gesturing toward an imaginary coffin. “In this case, they can say it to my face. And I can respond to it in the same way.”
Gloria said she has supported Ed’s decision from the start, and said the worst thing she can think of is to watch a loved one gasping for one more breath in a long, slow death. But she admitted she will miss him greatly.
“Ed and I are very close,” she said. “We worked together in real estate, and living together on a boat in close quarters, we had to enjoy each other’s company. So this is going to be quite a loss for me.”
Ness rejects the opposition to Death with Dignity, or medically assisted suicide, on the grounds that it will lead to people being killed by children seeking an early inheritance. But he admits some of the objection is on moral and spiritual grounds.
“I don’t have any religious beliefs,” Ed said. “Maybe I get to the other horizon and there’s nothing there. That’s OK, then I’ve got an eternity of absolute serenity. If there is something on the other side, I say let the adventure begin.”