Quebec became the first jurisdiction in Canada to table right-to-die legislation this week. If passed, it will radically expand options for dying patients, including euthanasia in limited and grievous situations. That’s a development that Daniel Devaney would likely have welcomed, but we will never know for certain. Mr. Devaney took a fatal dose of pentobarbital on May 9 because he could no longer combat chronic pain compounded by a collapsing spine, nerve damage and a deteriorating digestive system. He was 60. Before he died, Mr. Devaney wrote a letter expressing his belief that “disabled individuals, as long as they are of sound mind, deserve the right to assisted euthanasia.” He asked his ex-wife, Elaine Briere, to send it to The Globe and Mail.
The public discussion about end-of-life choices often pits disability activists against right-to-die lobbyists, with the first side arguing that medically assisted suicide puts the vulnerable and the elderly at risk. But “it was Mr. Devaney’s pain, not his disability, that made him want to end his life,” says Gabor Maté, a former family doctor in Vancouver who treated Mr. Devaney with morphine for chronic pain back in the 1990s. Dr. Maté even wrote a column in The Globe in 1993, describing how Mr. Devaney had arrived in his office with a file of research, showing that prescribing narcotics to manage severe pain in psychologically healthy patients doesn’t lead to addiction. “… I was not entirely sure whether to trust Daniel or the instinct that told me to take his story and his reports of pain seriously,” Dr. Maté wrote. “My training had not prepared me for that … The patient helped to educate his new physician.”
Thirty-five years ago, Mr. Devaney was an athletic young man with a tree-trimming business in Long Beach, Calif., a wife and a baby daughter. His life changed irrevocably in 1979. He was 26. He was electrocuted when his pruning shears hit high-tension electrical wires that had not been properly insulated. Unable to break his sudden fall, he hit the ground hard, breaking his T6 vertebra, just below his shoulders. In one fateful moment he became a paraplegic. “One vertebra higher and he would have been a quadriplegic,” explained Ms. Briere, his second wife, in an interview.
Having the use of his arms was not much consolation to Mr. Devaney or his family. Even before he got out of hospital, his first wife had called it quits. Depressed and despairing, Mr. Devaney decided killing himself would solve his escalating health-care costs and the burden he was putting on his young family. So he got into his specially equipped van and drove himself over a cliff in the coastal mountains near Long Beach. He landed at the bottom of a ravine, with a broken jaw and other injuries, but alive, not dead. That’s when he had a revelation, according to Ms. Briere. “If I get out of this, no more attempts to kill myself, no more looking back,” he vowed. He managed to crawl up the cliff to a bank, where he was eventually found and taken once again to hospital.
As soon as he was able, he moved north to British Columbia, where he had lived for the first five years of his life. He settled in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, bought a modest house with some of the money he had received in a legal settlement with the negligent electrical company and arranged for his daughter, Sara, to visit in the summers. Ladysmith is also where he met Ms. Briere, a photographer. They were married in 1980 and opened a bookstore in the town halfway between Duncan and Nanaimo.
Life was good for a decade – until the damage to Mr. Devaney’s spinal nerves created chronic and excruciating pain. Local doctors gave him Demerol and Tylenol, and refused to give him morphine for fear he might become addicted. By 1989 he had been hospitalized several times for pain management and investigation of other complications from his accident. As his own advocate, Mr. Devaney began researching the literature on pain, reading the clinical studies of psychologist Ronald Melzack of McGill University among other experts. He and Ms. Briere moved to Vancouver, and even after they split as a couple in 1991, they remained best friends. Mr. Devaney, who was a political activist and president of his co-op, became more and more debilitated. He broke his leg badly in 2012, suffered severe burns from heating pads and was plagued with excruciating side effects from medications. The narcotics were losing their effectiveness after 20 or so years, and he was getting breakthrough pain, according to Ms. Briere. “His bones were like glass” and fractured easily from “transferring all the time out of bed to the toilet and into the car.”
This spring Mr. Devaney was worn out. He was spending most of his time coping with his pain, dealing with his physical needs and the convulsive spasms caused by his degenerating digestive system. One attack was so severe that he suffered a heart attack. Fearing he would end up in an extended-care facility, he decided to act while he still could.
Ending your life is not as easy as it appears in movies and novels. Mr. Devaney had a Monty Pythonesque experience with a plastic bag and a machine for blowing up helium balloons. He missed one of the steps and ended up alive but desperately ill. Finally, he imported two vials of pentobarbital, labelled vitamin supplements, by mail from a source in Mexico. “He didn’t want to die – he loved life – but he knew if he didn’t do it now, it was going to get so much worse,” said Ms. Briere.
This time, despite the risk of being arrested for aiding and abetting a suicide, she persuaded her former husband to let her stay in the room while he drank the lethal potion. She held him in her arms until he died. “I am so glad I didn’t leave him alone. He was so good to me all my life,” she said. “I know he died peacefully.”
Dr. Maté remembers Mr. Devaney “as a very reasonable and thoughtful person,” but wishes he had been able to help him find another solution. “Pain and suffering isn’t just a physical experience, it is an emotional and spiritual experience and it has to be addressed on all those levels,” he said. “But who am I to judge?”