I feel the need to write. I’ve never felt like this before, but putting words down in black and white seems to be the only way to make it all seem real.
It is 11:30 pm Monday May 29th, 2017.
I’m going to see a man die tomorrow. 2pm. On the dot.
I’ve been a reporter for 24 years, almost to the day. I’ve seen and covered a lot of death for the nightly news. Car crashes, train wrecks, plane crashes, murders, drownings, fires, you name it. Men, woman, boys, girls. Babies. You name it, I’ve covered most of it.
I even watched my own mother die an ugly death in her bed after fighting cancer for months.
Death, it seems doesn’t bother me. Either I’m cold to it. Desensitized? Not sure. But I have detached myself from the death I have covered. Others have even observed that about me. No big deal I say. It’s not like I’m a first responder and see death like they do. PTSD anyone?
But for some reason this feeling is different and scary. I’m not sure why and maybe that is unnerving me even more.
Tomorrow. 2pm. On the dot.
I met Ed Ness yesterday at his home in Deep Bay. A lovely sprawling rancher overlooking the Georgia Strait. His wife Gloria was there too. Ed is dying of terminal lung cancer and has chosen to die with dignity. Medical Assistance in Dying. Right to Die, Doctor assisted Death. Call it what you want, but Ed is dying and has the legal right in Canada to a medically assisted death and he has planned it all.
When I showed up at his door yesterday, just before 2pm, as irony would have it, I was fully aware that in two days Ed would be in the very last minutes of his 72 year life. A doctor would likely be hovering over him and he would be about to take his last breath.
So I was not expecting this. Ed himself at the door greeting me with a smile, a cough and a firm handshake. “C’mon in Dean, nice to meet you” he said. I thought to myself (and later asked him) “What the?” I thought this man would be in bed, tubes down his throat, his wife applying a wet cloth to his forehead, a glass of water nearby.
Remember, I’d seen my Mom die and I remember exactly how she looked and what was happening around her bed two days before she died. This was not the same.
Gloria was there too. Friendly and calm, but perhaps a little unnerved. Can you blame her?
I was about to learn a lot in the next hour.
We went outside to their back patio. Ed asked if I wanted an iced tea. I said sure and he said he’d have one too. Gloria returned with two glasses.
We sat down around the table and commenced the interview, news camera rolling.
I won’t get into all the questions and answers (you can watch the CHEK News stories for that) but what I feel is important to share is what it was like to sit there with Ed, a man dying of cancer, but who still seemed pretty healthy (he said he was losing a pound a day) talking about his own death he was planning and why and just how surreal it all seemed.
He never got upset or cried. I never saw a tear. Gloria wore dark sunglasses but also held it together pretty good. Ed was resolute. “I’m dying anyway, I just want to do it on my terms.”
After the interview he said “Come on inside Dean and I’ll show you where it’s going to happen.”
I followed him inside, camera rolling, a lump in my throat.
He sat down in his favourite dark leather recliner and literally told me he’d be dying right there, less than 48 hours later.
I think I was a little too stunned or in awe or something to really comprehend what I was hearing and seeing.
Before I left Ed showed me his Harley Davidson in the garage and talked about how he loved to ride it.
He seemed like he could just zip off on a long road trip like he said he’d done countless times before.
The last shot I got was of him and Gloria hugging on the front porch and then I drove away thinking “less than two days now.”
I had a story to do and I had an invitation to consider.
It’s Monday now and we’re doing a follow up story to yesterday’s because there is so much unused footage and comments from Ed. This is so important to him and I feel that I left too much out of the first story.
There has also been a lot of interest from viewers after the first story.
I interviewed his doctor today. She’s wonderful and explained to me how Ed’s death will happen. She’s very professional. She’s already done 20 since it became legal last June.
She believes in it absolutely and says we “treat our own pets and animals” better by putting them out of their misery and that it’s “not noble to suffer” a quote that seems to stick with me.
The story airs and again a ton of viewer feedback. Mostly positive about Ed’s choice but also some criticism about our choice to even cover this in the first place and “just let the man die in peace without the media.” It makes me mad. Pisses me off. I was invited there in the first place and Ed WANTS to tell his story. Yet the usual trolls make comments perhaps without even watching the story.
Ed wants people to know this is not suicide. It is not doctor assisted suicide. We don’t show it or talk about it on camera but he has large tumours growing out the side of his chest. He is dying anyway and has about a month to live. He is going out this way because he doesn’t want a long drawn out painful death. Pretty simple. And, as a Canadian he has a choice. “Isn’t Canada a great country?” he said to me on Sunday.
The invitation I mentioned was to return tomorrow for “the procedure.” Wow. I’m not sure if a Canadian broadcast journalist has done this before. Should I go? I’ll be covering this man’s last breath. I’ll be watching him die, recording it on camera. I’ll be an outsider in his home full of family and friends. Will it look like I am exploiting his death?
My head is spinning, but Ed and I share some emails and this is the last one:
Great. We’ll see you tomorrow, then. We have about 20 guests arriving about noon. Dr Daws should arrive about 2:00. The procedure should take about 20 minutes. I would suggest if you arrive 15 – 20 minutes earlier, this would give you time to set up. You can park in my neighbours driveway just north of me. It’s just a couple of steps from my patio gate. You can bring you stuff into the patio, and just advise me when your ready to start the interview. Would that work for you, or would you like to arrive sooner? We’re flexible.
I’ll check out your Chek website.
This seems crazy. He’s inviting me back for a pre-death interview. He trusts me that much? I am so humbled but will I be able to deliver his message??
It’s now 8am on D-day. That’s what Ed is calling today. D-Day.
I had a restless night, wondering mainly if Ed was sleeping. Would he want to sleep on his last night alive? Wouldn’t he want to stay awake as much as he could? After all he’ll be sleeping a lot after today….
Just spoke with my assignment desk. How do we cover this? I do not want to look like a voyeur to a man’s death. We have agreed not to air anything today which is a relief. I’m not sure how I’ll feel afterwards but rushing something to air at 5 or 6 seems impossible. I want and need to do this story justice. We will air it tomorrow.
The station is offering to send someone with me. Another camera man. I say no. Need to go alone.
It’s now 10am. 4 hours to go. What in the world could Ed be thinking right now? I guess I’ll find out, he has agreed to be interviewed before he dies.
“This is crazy” is all I can think. Not what he’s doing but that I’m going to be there. How will I react? How should I shoot it? How should I tell it? My mind is beginning to spin again now.
Best we can tell, no other Canadian broadcast journalist has been witness to this before.
But this isn’t about me and I keep insisting on that. I am thankful and humbled that Ed and Gloria have put enough faith and trust in me to be there.
I’m going for a run to take my mind off of this.
I arrive at his home at 1pm. One hour to go. There are about 15 people there and even before I enter the house I can hear the noise and the laughter.
Very strange I think. But comforting at the same time. I didn’t want to walk in to see and interrupt everyone weeping and sobbing uncontrollably, although isn’t that what to expect?
I see Ed. He’s standing in the kitchen looking very alive and content. Friends and family are there and people take turns hugging him and chatting and taking pictures with him. He and Gloria basically announce to everyone that I am there and introduce me. There seems to be some uncertain stares and this is what I was afraid of. Ed and Gloria had invited me but how would their guests feel about me being there? Ultimately it didn’t matter because it was Ed’s decision but at the same time I wanted it to be OK with everyone that I was there. So I felt the need to say a few quick words to everyone, stating again that Ed had invited me and I was honoured to be there.
Everyone smiled, and went back their food or glasses of wine and conversation. Phew.
A clock hung on the wall near the ceiling in the kitchen and I kept looking at it. It was about 1:25. Ed was ready to be interviewed one last time and to say he was eager to do it might be overstating it, but only a bit. He was so accommodating and willing. I thought the kitchen was the best place to conduct the interview so I set it up in the corner and pointed it at Ed with everyone else mingling in the background.
The first thing I asked him was how he was feeling? He said “revved up like the first time I went skydiving.” Fair enough I thought. I’d have to get revved up for this too.
But honestly, Ed was calm, so calm. I asked him if he slept and told him I was thinking about him in the middle of the night and he said “really?” seeming surprised. No, he hadn’t slept much either.
Soon the interview was over and I spoke with some other family and friends who were there then just shot video of Ed and his guests. It was now 1:45pm. There was still a lot of noise and laughter and Ed said this is exactly how he wanted it. “I want a happy send off” he told me.
I kept talking to myself under my breath. “Is this for real?” “Am I really here?” “Am I doing this right?”
Gloria went and lit candles in the living room and closed the blinds.
The time was very near now.
A large flat screen tv hanging above the fireplace was playing some sort of nature picture slide show. Ed loved nature.
The mood was getting heavy now and not wanting to be in the way I positioned my camera and myself against the wall, behind another chair just a few feet from where Ed was now sitting in his recliner. There was still some laughter but now it seemed to be the nervous kind. There were tears too and the realization that this was going to come to an end real soon now.
Gloria was on a couch being consoled by someone and Ed pulled out two pages of paper and asked the guests to listen as he read his “Last Epitaph” which he’d written days earlier.
A few smiles, words of encouragement followed and Ed sipped on a glass of wine. There was a picture of him and Gloria on their wedding day 35 years earlier sitting on the table next to him.
At 2pm sharp the doctor and nurse arrived.
The doctor was kind and greeted Ed and Gloria warmly and really seemed to take a bit of the edge off what was happening. If there was a time for a good bedside manner this was it and she really made everyone feel comfortable.
I stood beside my camera and just shot what was happening. I knew I wouldn’t show everything on the news but I just shot what unfolded in front of me. Thankfully Gloria puts a short stool on the floor beside Ed’s chair and sits down, blocking some of what was happening. But I had the nicest close shot of Ed and Gloria sharing a last tender moment. He said “Goodbye, I love you” and she said “I love you.” Her face was away from me so I couldn’t see the tears but I’m sure they were there.
Then the doctor asked if he was ready and Ed said “yes.” By now tears were flowing from every eye in the room, including my own. Like a river. There is no way anyone could be in that room and not be moved by what was happening. I didn’t even know the man but was beyond touched by how he had invited me there to witness and record his death to share with the world.
Someone handed me some tissues but they didn’t help much.
I was feeling the enormous weight of responsibility now. AND, I REALLY liked this guy. He is so nice and just two days ago we were sipping iced tea and he was telling me his most intimate thoughts about death and dying and sickness and health. Well, never mind two days ago, how about 30 minutes ago? 30 minutes ago we were doing an interview standing up in his kitchen and he is now literally what, 5 minutes from death?
More tears. Lots of them.
There were about 15 people in the room bearing witness to this. There were a lot of teary eyes but no loud crying or sobbing. This really was Ed’s moment. He was not afraid, did not look scared, never wavered in his decision to do what he was doing.
The doctor gave one injection that would make Ed fall asleep pretty quickly. But before he did, his last words were “This is perfect.” It just seemed to put everyone at ease and I will remember those words forever.
Gloria remained at his side, stroking his left hand and arm.
Other injections followed. Muscle relaxers and one that would stop his heart.
And it did.
At about 2:25pm the doctor said quietly, “Gloria, he has passed away.”
She dropped her head in sadness but soon stood up.
Everyone slowly got up and hugged and hugged Ed one more time.
I quietly shut down my camera, waited for a moment to say goodbye to Gloria and slipped out the front door.
A few people thanked me for being there on the way out and that was that.
I hit the highway for home but stopped at a beach not far away because I felt like I just couldn’t breathe. I needed air. Was it because I saw him die or because I still had the huge responsibility of telling his story. I’m sure it was both.
I produced a 3:30 story that aired on Wednesday June 1st. I agonized over every detail but it seems to have been well-received and I am relieved by that.
I have received personal emails from people who just wanted to say good job, or even that they knew Ed years ago and appreciated the opportunity to see his last day.
The vast majority of viewers it seems say they agree with what he did and why.
His message again is that Canadians have a choice if they are terminal and want to avoid a drawn out and painful death. It’s not suicide in any way shape or form he told me numerous times.
He took control of the cancer before it was able to take full control of him.
Rest in Peace Ed Ness and thank you for letting me tell your story.
If you want to see my report on Ed’s final day click here.