96. Case: MAiD and Depressive Disorder

An assumption for the purposes of the case – these circumstances are happening in the perhaps not-too-distant future after the Supreme Court of Canada has struck down Bill C-14’s ‘reasonably foreseeable death’ criterion.

Sally York is a 54 year-old, single, unemployed woman who has a longstanding history of treatment-resistant major depressive disorder. Her mother experienced recurrent major depressive episodes throughout her adulthood, and one of her paternal uncles was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. Sally experienced her first major depressive episode at the age of 11½ while she was transitioning through puberty. In the last 15 years, she has experienced multiple, persistent, disabling depressive symptoms including: significant depressive dysphoria, obsessive negative rumination, intense social anxiety, heightened irritability, lack of interest in normal activities of daily living and her former hobbies, impaired concentration and focus, reduced appetite and with associated difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, prolonged, early morning waking, and suicidal ideation. Sally has been followed by numerous psychiatrists and clinical psychologists over her lifetime, and she has been trialed on a wide variety of treatment modalities including three generations of antidepressant medications and multiple augmentation agents (atypical antipsychotics, anticonvulsant medications, mood stabilizers and T3 thyroid medication). She has been actively engaged in courses of many different types of psychotherapy including supportive, insight-oriented, cognitive-behavioural, interpersonal and mindfulness-based types. She has tried and failed transcranial magnetic stimulation treatment. Although Sally has been offered trials of ECT, she has never wished to pursue this treatment intervention due to her mother’s reports of bad experiences with it in the years before her death. She was involuntarily hospitalized on four occasions in the past because of temporary formed suicidal intent.

Sally’s other active health conditions include irritable bowel syndrome, chronic mixed migraine-tension headaches, and chronic, significant shoulder girdle myofascial pain. Her chronic pain remains active despite trials of physiotherapy, massage therapy, exercise therapy, myofascial trigger-point injections, regular opioid medication, and a neuropathic pain modulator. A former attending psychiatrist believed that there was a component of somatic symptom disorder in Sally’s chronic pain presentation.

Sally’s quality of life has greatly deteriorated over the past four years due to her combined experience of persistent depression and chronic pain, although the latter has been less disabling than the former. This symptomatic worsening correlated with her financially-based decision (after leaving work for medical reasons) to move to a remote area of the Valley that is close to where her mother grew up. Without the direct support of a cognitive-behavioural therapist, Sally stopped doing her cognitive-behavioural exercises and slipped back into her former ways of looking at the world through the typical cognitive-distortions of depressed individuals, e.g., all-or-nothing thinking, mindreading, minimization of positives, etc. She spends most of her days in bed and struggles to get out of her small, government-subsidized apartment once a week to visit an elderly aunt. A friendly neighbour shops for her at the local supermarket once a week. Her medications are delivered to her by taxi through an arrangement with a pharmacy located in a nearby village. Although her medications are delivered in blister packs, she forgets to take them sometimes.

Sally has heard that MAiD is now legal in Canada but she doesn’t know much about it. She asks a cousin who lives in the nearest town, and who worked as a palliative care nurse in Halifax prior to his recent retirement, to come-by for coffee. Sally uses her enhanced knowledge from the conversation with her cousin to prepare herself for a visit to her family physician.



  • What is your gut reaction on a ‘first read’ of these circumstances?
  • Can legitimate distinctions be made between the experience of profound suffering arising from physical health disorders and the experience of profound suffering arising from mental health disorders?
  • How could the psychiatric symptomatology and related lived-experiences of a person with a significant mental health disorder affect her/his capacity to make a decision regarding a personal request for MAiD.
  • Are there particular mental health disorders that would preclude the making of an informed choice to request MAiD?
  • What is currently known about the capacity of individuals who suffer from treatment-resistant major depressive disorder as this pertains to their making of meaningful decisions about their health care and treatment?

95. Case: Conventional vs Chinese Medicine

Lisa Chun is a 12 year old recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.  She arrived as a refugee from China five years ago with her parents and her younger brother.  She has integrated well into the community and is successful in school.  She often acts as an interpreter for her parents.

Lisa is prescribed corticosteroids and biologic therapies, but she states that she would prefer to pursue treatment with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), consisting of acupuncture and herbs.  Her parents indicate that they support her in this choice. Lisa’s parents have previously expressed discomfort about the diagnostic tests that Lisa underwent and Lisa and her family have missed a few appointments, which have had to be rescheduled.

The team is concerned about the long-term effects of not treating with conventional therapies, given that Lisa is very small for her age and is not displaying signs of puberty.

Some members of the team who have worked closely with Lisa feel that she has capacity to make this decision.  They believe that her reasoning, based on belief that TCM treatment is better able to respond to the way that Crohn’s has manifested in her body, is appropriate.  Other members of the team feel very uncomfortable with allowing her to refuse conventional therapy altogether, although they say they are willing to explore integrating TCM with conventional approaches.

Finally, certain team members are concerned that they will “lose” Lisa and her family and worry that requiring a capacity assessment for Lisa (or her parents) will irrevocably damage the relationship.

Concerns have also been raised about whether there’s an obligation to contact Child Welfare if Lisa and her parents continue to refuse conventional therapy.

The team has requested support from the ethics committee to help them work out how to approach this situation.


What will make this case clinically challenging?

What will make this case ethically challenging?

How might the ethics committee support the team in addressing these challenges?

What would change (if anything) if Lisa and her parents came from Estonia instead of China?

87. Case: Considering Alternatives

Jessie Rockford is an 8-year-old with a history of developmental delay, significant cognitive deficits, and symptoms of cerebral palsy. She is her parents’ only child and they are very loving, attentive, and concerned–they never miss a medical appointment and have carefully followed the care plan drawn up for their daughter.

However, with the passing of time they have grown increasingly concerned about her muscle spasms and contractions that seem to be causing her significant discomfort. They have consulted a local homeopath as well as a massage therapist who have both become involved with Jessie’s ongoing care.

At a regular clinic visit her parents tell the clinician about these new developments and add that they believe the treatments are helping. When the sessions are explored with Jessie, she shows no concern and seems quite content.

The health care team has some questions about this development and has called you to find out how they should respond to Jessie’s parents. Should they be supportive or discouraging of the parents’ decision?

85. Case: Adam’s Story

Adam Snowdon, a 16 year-old Sydney boy, was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) 18 months ago.  The disease has progressed rapidly over the past three months and over this period Adam has quickly begun losing the ability to use his right arm to the point now where it is no longer effectively functional.  He is also beginning to have difficulty standing and walking and is showing early signs of respiratory, swallowing and speech problems.  His doctors speculate that Adam will die within a year and that in the months prior to that he will likely become “locked in” and unable to communicate at all.

Adam has always been a rambunctious boy.  He has had numerous behavioral issues throughout his childhood, proving to be quite a handful for his parents.  He has run away from home several times, has been suspended various times and expelled from two schools. Adam has also been detained by the police on four occasions for possession of alcohol and marijuana.

Adam is currently living at home in Sydney with his mother Nancy Snowdon and older brother David who just turned 17.  Nancy works part time as a school librarian.  She has full-time custody of her two sons.  Nancy has been suffering from clinical depression for several months now.  She has been under emotional strain since Adam became ill.  She is currently taking antidepressant medication and is receiving counseling from a chartered psychologist.  Through this treatment appears to be helping Nancy, she is still struggling to cope.  On a few occasions she has missed appointments with Adam’s doctor, simply feeling unable to face the situation on her “bad days”.  On those occasions Adam missed his appointments altogether as he shows no initiative in attending his medical appointments on his own.

Adam’s health care providers have not been able to establish a trusting relationship with him.  They find it generally difficult to engage him in conversation, and he is especially uncomfortable discussing the ALS.  He refuses to discuss the details of how his disease will progress or his preferences regarding options such as ventilators etc.  He has, however, stated emphatically that he has no intention of allowing them to “put him in the hospital do die”.

Adam’s father, Ted Snowdon, is an engineer in Alberta.  He and Nancy divorced relatively amicably when Adam and David were nine and ten respectively.  Mr. Snowdon has not played much of a role in the lives of both of his sons after the divorce but he visits every summer and they all go camping.  He has remarried to Clarice Snowdon who has shown little interest in the boys.  Since Adam’s diagnosis, Mr. Snowdon has been flying out to Sydney regularly to be involved with decisions around organizing care for Adam. Mr. Snowdon feels strongly that decisions about Adam’s future care need to be made immediately.

Dr. Kerrigan is Adam’s family physician.  She is concerned that Adam’s condition is getting worse very rapidly and is anxious about the decisions that will have to be made about Adam’s care.  In particular, Dr. Kerrigan is worried about the relationships within the family.  She knows that Mr. Snowdon feels strongly that his son should be hospitalized and eventually ventilated.  He has stated that Adam is “too young” to know what he wants and is worried that Nancy is not able to handle keeping Adam at home, even with home care support.  Dr. Kerrigan is concerned that Mr. Snowdon will dominate the decision-making process at the critical time and that Adam’s and his mother’s wishes may be overridden or altogether neglected.  Beyond her concerns about the family dynamics, she is uncertain as to Adam’s decision-making capacity – and Mrs. Snowdon’s for that matter – and is also unclear on the more basic question of who ought to be making decisions about Adam’s care.

Since Adam became ill he has been seeing a neurologist at the local hospital, Dr. Watson, and Dr. Kerrigan are in touch frequently regarding Adam’s care and have discussed Dr. Kerrigan’s concerns around the family dynamics and the decision making that will need to occur in providing end of life care for Adam.  Dr. Watson has requested a consult from the hospital ethics committee.  Mr. Snowdon and his wife have flown in from Calgary just for this meeting.  Adam was asked to participate in the meeting but he flatly refused, saying he wanted to spend time with some of his friends instead.

Participants’ Roles:

Ethics consultant #1 (facilitator)

Ethics consultant #2 (ethics facilitator)

Ethics consultant #3 (recorder)

Nancy Snowdon (Adam’s mother):  Very concerned about her son’s welfare.  Feeling overwhelmed, isn’t sure what to do.

Mr. Ted Snowdon (Adam’s father):  Skeptical of Adam’s decision making capacity and can’t understand why Adam is acting the way he is.

David Snowdon (Adam’s 17 year old brother):  David is scared, angry with both parents, worried about Adam, and worried about his own life. Most of all, he wants peace for Adam.

Dr. Watson (neurologist):  wary of the complex relational issues at stake, as well as the challenges of making decisions for young ALS patients like Adam.  Wants to make decisions as soon as possible before Adam is no longer able to express his own views.  Feels in over his/her head, wants the committee to get this sorted out as much as possible.  Dr. Watson has been developing an interest in bioethics and is considering becoming a member of the ethics committee.

Dr. Kerrigan (family physician):  Concerned about the toll this is taking on Nancy, Adam and David.  Worried that Mr. Snowdon is driving discussions around care.

Jamie Lee (patient services coordinator):  Has been taking a bioethics course and is eager to apply her/his newly developed skills.

64. CASE: Implementing an Anti-Obesity Strategy

The local health district is in the final stages of adopting a comprehensive organizational anti-obesity policy. Its development was led by a working group of diverse stakeholders from across the district and included an extensive consultation process.

One aspect of the policy that generated a lot of discussion and debate at the working group was the suggestion that messaging should be designed to increase stigma and social pressure around obesity.  This strategy was defended recently in a leading bioethics journal and has been implemented in other jurisdictions.  Ultimately the group was convinced to include this suggestion in the policy because of the success that such messages had in decreasing smoking rates.

Prior to ratifying the new policy, senior leadership requested that the district medical advisory committee review it.  One of these reviewers is clearly upset by the policy; he sent feedback in very personal terms implying that increasing stigma and social pressure around obesity made the policy unreasonable and unethical.

  • What values are relevant to the policy issues under consideration?
  • Why would the reviewer deem the policy to be unethical?
  • What are the conflicting values among the reviewer and the policy makers?
  • Is there other information you would like to have before responding to the reviewer?
  • How will you (the working committee) respond to the reviewer and why?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Empathy
  • Respect for autonomy
  • Respect for dignity
  • Community health ethics
  • Living at risk
  • Organizational ethics
  • Compliance with policy
  • Social justice
  • Social determinants of health
  • Responsibility for health

29. CASE: Complicated Caring

Mr. Sundown is a 78-year old African Nova Scotian who is a patient in an internal medicine clinical unit at the Halifax Infirmary. He has a variety of serious medical conditions including diabetes, coronary artery disease, and advanced COPD. He is experiencing progressive respiratory failure on the basis of a difficult-to-treat pneumonia. Mr. Sundown has Alzheimer’s disease and, when out of hospital, lives at home in Dartmouth, where he is totally dependent on his family and visiting VON nurses.

During this admission, the clinical unit nurses and attending physician are having a difficult time communicating with him. On some occasions, Mr. Sundown appears to recognize his wife and children and speaks a few seemingly appropriate words.

Mrs. Sundown and her children make regular visits to the hospital. Mrs. Sundown is a physically healthy person. She is shy and tends to defer in her decision-making to her eldest son, Peter, who has power-of-attorney for both his parents. He lives in Toronto and usually visits home twice yearly. There are two other siblings, Don and Paulette, who live in Halifax.

Mrs. Sundown and Peter are members of a fundamentalist faith. Mr. Sundown is a life-long agnostic, while Don and Paulette attend protestant churches. They all get along pretty well as long as no one brings up religion.

At a health care team conference, there is discussion of the possibility of withholding further potential treatment (including mechanical ventilation) for Mr. Patterson whose health condition is rapidly deteriorating. The attending physician and most other members of the treatment team believe that this is in Mr. Sundown’s best interests, given his apparent low quality of life and what they perceive to be his potential for prolonged suffering.

On a review of Mr. Sundown’s health record, the charge nurse notices that Peter Sundown is listed as the next-of-kin on the admission notes, and that an advance directive has not been made. Family members report to the attending medical resident that Mr. Sundown has not clearly indicated his wishes/ preferences for medical care and treatment at the end-of-life.

The attending physician is aware that the relevant intensive care unit is full and that there are five other very ill patients waiting for urgent admission. He calls for an ethics consult.

  • What issues should be discussed during this meeting?
  • Who should be present at this meeting?
  • What weight should resource allocation have in this case?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Advance care planning and personal directives
  • Substitute decision-making
  • Spirituality and religious beliefs
  • Resource allocation
  • Respect for patient autonomy
  • Respect for human dignity
  • Patient-family relationships
  • Quality of life
  • Capacity
  • End-of-life decision-making

27. CASE: Withdrawal of Life-Sustaining Treatment

Mr. Windown, age 82, is admitted to a cardiology clinical unit with unstable angina. In addition to his coronary artery disease, Mr. Windown suffers from disabling generalized osteoarthritis, chronic and progressive obstructive lung disease, and diabetes with associated compromise of his vision and kidney function.

The coronary angiography reveals significant blockages of Mr. Windown’s coronary arteries. His attending cardiologist recommends that he undergo urgent four-vessel cardiac bypass grafting (to shunt blood around the blockages). The consultant cardiovascular surgeon, Dr. Paterna, gets Mr. Windown to sign a consent form for the procedure and mentions that it is anticipated that Mr. Windown will need to spend two days in the Cardiovascular ICU after the surgery.

In the past year, Mr. Windown’s health status has deteriorated to the extent that he can no longer perform any physical chores on his hobby farm. Prior to developing unstable angina, he was limited to walking around the first floor of his farmhouse and watching TV. After giving considerable thought to his future health care and treatment, Mr. Windown named his daughter, Elle, as his delegate in a personal directive, which does not provide any specific instructions. In a general, frank discussion about his health, Mr. Windown clearly expressed to his wife and Elle that he did not wish to be maintained on life support for a prolonged period of time.

Unfortunately, Mr. Windown experiences a significant complication from his cardiac bypass surgery – he suffers an intra-operative stroke, which renders him incapable of making health care decisions on his own.

Two and a half weeks after the surgery, Elle speaks to Dr. Paterna (who is now her father’s attending ICU physician) and requests that her father’s life sustaining treatment (including mechanical ventilation and renal dialysis) be withdrawn. Dr. Paterna gets annoyed with Elle, describes Mr. Windown’s health status in highly technical terms, and emphatically informs her that, in his opinion, her father has a reasonable chance of recovery to a functional status similar to the one he has experienced for the past year. Dr. Paterna tells Elle that this recovery will require another two to four weeks in the ICU and that he is uncomfortable with withdrawing Mr. Windown’s life sustaining treatment at this time.

When Elle insists that her father’s prior, verbally-expressed wishes be respected, Dr. Paterna manages to put her off for a few days by not responding to her request for a family meeting. He complains bitterly in the staff room that Mr. Windown’s family is being “difficult”. With the encouragement of the ICU’s assertive social worker, Dr. Paterna reluctantly agrees to consult ethics.

  • How would you proceed with this consult?
  • Is this a communication and/or professional practice issue or an ethics one?
  • Identify any underlying ethical tensions in this situation?
  • Is Dr. Paterna right to push back on Elle’s request?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Advance care planning and personal directives
  • Substitute decision-making
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Respect for patient autonomy
  • Respect for human dignity
  • Patient-provider relationships
  • Patient-family relationships
  • Quality of life
  • Consent

25. CASE: A Difference of Opinion?

Mary is a 90-year old woman who has been in hospital several weeks. She has a COPD exacerbation, increasing difficulty swallowing, and pneumonia. She has said repeatedly she is tired of being in hospital and tired of fighting to breathe. She doesn’t want a feeding tube or her IV but wants to be allowed to die comfortably.

Mary’s daughters who have been regular, frequent visitors, say she has always been a fighter and would never want to give up. They believe she is just discouraged and are requesting everything be done to keep her alive including a feeding tube, IV hydration, and mechanical ventilation if it becomes necessary.

The resident in charge of Mary’s care calls the ethics request line.

  • What are the ethics issues in this situation?
  • What underlying values are at stake?
  • Should Mary or her daughter’s have decision-making authority?
  • How would you respond to this call for ethics support?
  • Who should be involved in the discussion?


Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Informed consent
  • Capacity
  • Substitute decision-making
  • Advance care planning and personal directives
  • Quality of life
  • Respect for human dignity
  • Respect for patient autonomy
  • Patient-family relationships
  • End-of-life decision-making

24. CASE: Changing Care and Care-Giving

Kevin Henderson is an 83-year old man who is hospitalized in an internal medicine clinical unit at the local hospital. Kevin has a variety of serious medical conditions including severe Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, coronary artery disease and advanced chronic obstructive lung disease. He is slowly recovering from a difficult-to-treat pneumonia, which required treatment with intravenous antibiotics.

During this admission, the clinical unit nurses and attending physician are having a difficult time communicating with Kevin. On some occasions, he appears to recognize his wife and children and speaks a few, seemingly appropriate, words to them.

Family members make regular visits to the hospital. Mr. Henderson’s wife, Nancy, has osteoarthritis that has been increasingly disabling of late. She is somewhat shy and tends to defer her decision-making to her eldest son, Peter. He lives in Toronto and usually visits home twice yearly. He has recently flown to Halifax to see his father and provide psychological support to his mother. Peter has power of attorney for his father’s financial matters.

There are two other children, Sandra and Paulette, who live in Dartmouth. They are estranged from their brother due to unresolved, significant conflict that arose from the sale of the family cottage two years ago.

When out of hospital, Kevin lives with Nancy at home in a rural area, where he is totally dependent on his family and visiting VON nurses. Nancy has been finding it increasingly difficult to care for her husband at home. She arranges to meet with her children in the clinical unit’s family room to discuss alternate living arrangements for Kevin. When they meet, Nancy states that she is not willing to make a decision about placing Kevin in a continuing care home on her own. She then looks to Peter to begin the discussion.

An advance/personal directive has not been made. Kevin, who was in denial during the early stages of his dementia, avoided talking to his family about his wishes for his care when his health condition got worse. Sandra recalls that while her father was well, he had once commented to her that he did not want to end up in a nursing home at the end of his life.

  • What ethics concerns should the family be considering as they seek a way forward?
  • Who should be making decisions about Kevin’s care?
  • How would you help to facilitate this discussion?
  • Should Nancy’s health and well-being be considered equally as Kevin’s?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Capacity
  • Substitute decision-making
  • Patient-family relationships
  • Respect for patient autonomy
  • Advance care planning and personal directives
  • End-of-life decision-making

11. CASE: Truth-Telling

The patient is an 89-year-old gentleman with moderate dementia and a history of COPD, swallowing difficulties, a CVA, and recent aspiration. The investigation of his aspiration uncovered a lesion in his lung- the physicians felt it was likely to be cancerous. Thoracic surgery verified that it was lung cancer and a determination was made that he would not be a candidate for surgery or chemo, but potentially for radiation if he were to become symptomatic.

Sometime later, the patient underwent a CT scan, which showed that the lesion had not grown much. The attending physician believes the patient is more likely to die from aspiration pneumonia than his cancer.

The patient’s son does not want him to be told about the cancer for fear he might become depressed and “give up.” According to the physician, the patient can engage in discussions about his health, i.e. diet, etc., but would need assistance from his son for any major decisions.

The health care team is questioning whether they are doing the right thing by following the son’s wishes and not telling the patient about his cancer diagnosis. They put in a call to the ethics line.

  • Identify the competing values in this case
  • How will you proceed with this request?
  • Who should make the decision about what information the patient receives?
  • How does one really know what is best for a patient?
  • Is withholding health care information from a patient ever the right decision?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Honesty, trust and truth-telling
  • Respect for patient autonomy
  • Patient-family relationships
  • Capacity
  • Moral distress among health care providers
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Substitute decision-making
  • Beneficence and non-maleficence