I’ll never forget the phone call.
More than a year ago I was asked by a man with terminal cancer to share his journey with medical assistance in dying, right up to his final moments. Over the next several months he showed a tremendous amount of trust sharing his experience, because he knew he’d be gone from the world long before his story was ever sent out into the universe.
When Mike Sloan learned he had anaplastic thyroid cancer, he jumped online and saw that the median life expectancy for patients like him was about four months. When we sat down with him for the first time in September 2019, he’d already lived two months longer than expected, and he didn’t think he’d make it to October.
So when we connected for another in our series of interviews in early January 2020 he shook his head in disbelief as I told him, “I’ve never been so happy to say ‘Happy New Year’ to someone in my life.”
Early on in his battle, Mike chose not to go through chemotherapy and radiation. He didn’t want to deal with the side effects of cancer treatment during his final months.
Shortly thereafter he chose to move forward with a doctor assisted death. The alternative, if Mike were to let his anaplastic thyroid cancer run its full course, was possibly dying of asphyxiation. By that January 2020 interview, he knew the cancer was closing around his throat, but he still hadn’t set a firm date for his legal, doctor-assisted death.
“What Mike was really successful in a doing was challenging the veracity of our beliefs, and looking at things through a different lens”
I wasn’t alone in following Mike’s journey. His candid, at times humorous, takes on his own impending death was gaining attention from thousands of people on Twitter. In his final months, as the effects of cancer could be heard with each word he spoke, Mike’s voice on social media grew louder. From all walks of life, from politicians to celebrities, people were heeding the words of a dying man. Many sent positive messages of encouragement, having a profound impact on a man who had lived a difficult life.
“Probably the most important thing I’ve learned since finding out I was dying was this: feeling validated is what makes living life worthwhile. Just being told you matter changes everything,” he wrote in a tweet.
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned since finding out I was dying was this. Feeling validated is what makes life worthwhile. It’s not about free stuff, or materialism. Just being told you mattered changes everything, no matter how perilous your situation.
— Mike Sloan (@mikelondoncan) November 15, 2019
During one of our sit downs I asked Mike what he hoped people would gain from his journey to choose a doctor assisted death.
“It may upset some people, but it might enlighten some people,” he said.
Well before Mike settled on a day for his medically assisted death, he had some definite thoughts about what it should be like. He didn’t want a sombre occasion.
“I’m going have some friends over,” he joked in his first interview. “There will be beer…I’ve mentioned finger foods. I don’t want it to be a sad thing.”
Just a couple weeks after our interview with Mike, he called Dr. John Clifford early one morning. His health was deteriorating quickly. He was ready, and he wanted to die immediately. Many of his closest friends couldn’t make it in time – and with a two-hour drive, neither could I. Though one friend was able to be by his side to comfort him.
“He reached his hand out to me and so I took his hand when it started and put both hands over his because I wanted him to know I was there,” said Bob Smith, Mike’s good friend. “It’s just so peaceful. There’s no suffering.”
Smith was also able to fulfil one of Mike’s dying wishes, to have his doctor-assisted death recorded on video so it could be documented and shared.
For someone who was able to make a lot of noise in his final months, his medically assisted death was serene and silent. Mike lay still, asleep as Dr. Clifford slowly injected the drugs into his body that would end the suffering he endured in the final days of his life with cancer.
Recounting the final moments while sitting on the edge of Mike’s bed, Smith shared that he never felt Mike slip away.
“I just kept holding his hand, there was never a moment where I thought, ‘He’s gone.’ [Not] until the doctor asked the nurse what time it was. It was 1:25 p.m. That was the time of death, and that was it.”
Nine months after his death, Mike’s closest friends spread some of his ashes at his memorial tree in London, Ont. A tall can of Molson Dry, his beer of choice, was placed close by.
Scott Collyer spread Mike’s ashes at the bottom of the tree and paid tribute to his dear friend.
“What Mike was really successful in a doing was challenging the veracity of our beliefs, and looking at things through a different lens,” he said. “A different prism, where you strip away the privilege that many of us have and look at things through the eyes of someone who was broken down, emotionally damaged, was on ODSP but yet was able to rise up above all of that and make a difference, in terms of not just elevating the conversation about MAID, but poverty and food security, something someone cloaked in white privilege wouldn’t otherwise see.”
In his final months Mike also raised $34,000 for Youth Opportunities Unlimited, to build a home for teens who are too old to receive care from Ontario Children’s Aid Societies. The project has been built and is now home to young adults.
Reflecting on his time before he passed, Mike told me, “I’m very grateful to have had this experience and that I’ve been able to see my life come to an end in such a magnificent and enriching way.”