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None Dare Call It Euthanasia

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Evidence grows that patients are being deliberately starved and dehydrated to death.

by Candis McLean

In Canada, animals are treated better than seniors, according to Irene McNeilly of St. Paul, Alta., 100 miles northeast of Edmonton. She is angry because of treatment her husband received in St. Therese Hospital in St. Paul, prior to his death March 19. It was not only “callous and degrading,” she alleges, but possibly ended in euthanasia. If so, it is just part of an alarming trend, according to those who work with the elderly and infirm.

Keith McNeilly, 79, a native of Grenada, had worked most of his professional life in rural Alberta. “His deep Christian faith enriched his service to his fellow man in a very profound way,” recalled colleague Dr. Joseph Fernando in his eulogy. “He was a very generous and charitable man, and he never refused help when help was asked of him.” In recognition of his service to the Catholic Church and his fellow man, Dr. McNeilly was knighted in 1992 by the Order of the Holy Saviour and St. Brigitta of Sweden.

Trouble began last September when Dr. McNeilly was rushed to University Hospital in Edmonton after suffering a stroke. Paralyzed on one side, he was alert but unable to speak. “The young female doctor was brutally frank with me,” Mrs. McNeilly recounts. “Standing at his bedside, she said, ‘He is 79 years old. Because of his past medical history I will not recommend any drugs for his treatment. They are too expensive to healthcare.’ I said, ‘I will pay for them,’ but she said, ‘There is no point. This is a major stroke and he’s not going to recover anyway.’ He knew what was going on; he held my hand so tight and tears rolled down his face. These people are so rude. I worked with him 16 years; he always used to tell me, ‘Don’t tell the patients there is no hope. It is God who decides.'”

When Dr. McNeilly was moved to St. Therese Hospital, Mrs. McNeilly says, the staff seemed “rather negative and uncaring,” as if he were “one of the many old men who had become useless and undeserving of the decent treatment befitting a human being.” For 11 days, she documents, he became weaker as he was given intravenous liquids only; “no tube-feeding of nutritious food.” Finally given tube-feeding, he later pulled the tube out.

When Mrs. McNeilly pleaded with staff to replace it, she was told “the hospital had run out of tubes,” but was ordering some in. Two days later she called the hospital at 7 a.m., pleading for tube-feeding before she spoke to her lawyer. By 8 a.m. a tube had been inserted.

Released in November, Dr. McNeilly was readmitted in March to St. Therese Hospital with double pneumonia; antibiotics and morphine were administered. When his condition improved, Mrs. McNeilly was puzzled about the continued doses of morphine since it slows the heart, but was told it was “doctor’s orders.” “I was constantly with him, day in and day out, as I was scared of the morphine and alerted [by a nurse urging, during his first hospital stay, ‘Just pull the tubes out and let him go.’]” Mrs. McNeilly slept in a room adjoining her husband’s with the door open so she could check on him during the night.

“On March 19 at 6 a.m.,” she reports, “my fears were confirmed that strange and unexpected things had happened. I found my door closed, although I had left it open. I heard Keith groan, as he did when he wanted me. I heard footsteps going back and forth. Alarmed, I got up and found my door closed. Then a nurse with ‘Mercy’ on her name tag opened my door and said he had just gone. She said, ‘We washed him, gave him morphine and ventilin, and he’s gone.’ I was terribly shaken and cried. There was no oxygen mask on him and this puzzled me. I questioned them why the door was closed, why the morphine was given again without my permission, but no reply from them whatsoever.”

Mrs. McNeilly has lodged a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Allan Sinclair, manager of health services with Lakeland Regional Health Authority which is also investigating, says he has no knowledge of any euthanasia ever practised in the region. The Elder Advocate of Alberta, Ruth Adria of Edmonton (elderadv@telusplanet.net), says that if the case does prove to be euthanasia, it will not be the first she has seen documented; in fact, she has charges in process. Far more common, however, she says, is euthanasia by failure to feed or hydrate.

“Institutions literally don’t want to spend the dollars on the care. Everyone knows it’s going on, but it has to be articulated: when people can no longer feed themselves, they are left to starve.” On May 10, Ms. Adria distributed in the Legislature a pamphlet on elder abuse seeking enforceable laws similar to those in the U.S. with fines of $1,000 per day for weight loss, malnutrition or bedsores.

Mrs. McNeilly’s priest, Father Anthony O’Riordan, says he has also known “a lot of instances of deliberate neglect where people are starved and dehydrated to death. A utilitarian ethic is taking over,” he says. “If life is not convenient, take it. It’s alarming, but pretty well hidden.”

Originally published in: The Report Newsmagazine (no longer published) May 28, 2001

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