Pioneering doctor spoke up for seniors' care reform right up to his medically assisted death aged 98

·4 min read
Dr. Ronald Bayne in an undated photograph from early in his career as a physician.
Dr. Ronald Bayne in an undated photograph from early in his career as a physician.

(Family of Dr. Ronald Bayne - image credit)

Just hours before his planned death, Dr. Ronald Bayne shuffled from his bedroom to his living room in Victoria using a walker, each step filled with pain, to reveal more about his long-held passion for seniors' rights and care reform.

At 98 and facing terminal cancer, Bayne — one of Canada's first geriatricians — remained appalled by conditions in long-term care homes. As a physician, professor and advocate for seniors, it was something he had been speaking out against for decades.

In fact, Bayne chose to end his life rather than spend his remaining months alive in a long-term care facility.

"I shall not go into long-term care," he said adamantly in an interview with CBC News at his home on Thursday, the day before he died.

Dr. Ronald Bayne in an undated photograph from early in his career as a physician.
Dr. Ronald Bayne in an undated photograph from early in his career as a physician.

On the eve of his death, Bayne spoke about how COVID-19 has laid bare the serious faults that remain in the care system, referring to the pandemic as his "I-told-you-so moment."

The coronavirus has torn through long-term care homes across the country, killing thousands of residents and exposing lethal weaknesses in the system.

According to national statistics, close to 90 per cent of the almost 22,000 COVID-19 deaths in Canada have been among people aged 70 or older.

"COVID revealed exactly what I'd been saying all these years," he said.

"And, of course, the politicians are wringing their hands: 'Oh we didn't know anything about it, never heard. Oh, if only we'd known, we'd have done something.' But they knew perfectly well and never did [do anything], because it cost money."

Following the first wave of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the system had failed seniors and said the federal government was committed to helping provinces make improvements.

Bayne is adamant that part of those changes should allow people in the early stages of dementia to specify future conditions for medically assisted death, something not allowed under current laws.

"You're simply denying them what they asked for when they were sensible, so it's just ridiculous," he said.

WATCH | Facing his own death, Dr. Ronald Bayne explains why so many people are frightened of dying:

'I'm delighted, looking forward to it'

Faced with terminal cancer and attendant symptoms — including aching bones, difficulty swallowing and a burning sensation when urinating — Bayne arranged for a doctor to help him with a medically assisted death involving an intravenous injection.

"I'm delighted, looking forward to it," he said.

His daughter, Lillian Bayne, a health policy professor at the University of Victoria, said she understands and respects her father's wishes, but struggles with the thought of him being gone.

"On the one hand we want to keep you with us because we love you so much, and we know you love us and we continue to grow and learn from you all the time, every day," she said, sitting beside him on the sofa in his suite.

WATCH | Lillian Bayne speaks to her father about his decision to seek medical assistance in dying:

After training at McGill University in Montreal, Bayne began practising medicine in the 1940s, before a publicly funded, single-payer federal health-care system existed in Canada.

He devoted his career — which spanned Montreal, Boston and the United Kingdom — to caring for older adults and was outspoken in asking governments to improve life for seniors.

"To waste money on these old people who are going to die is not politically attractive," he said, deriding what he says was the attitude of some in power.

Bayne became a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., in 1970 and stayed there until his retirement in 1989.

Dr. Ronald Bayne poses with then McMaster University president Peter George May in 2006.
Dr. Ronald Bayne poses with then McMaster University president Peter George May in 2006.

He received an honorary degree from McMaster in 2006 for his work raising awareness of the need for the specialty of geriatric medicine, which was accredited by Canada's Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons only in 1977.

"He has envisioned and initiated programs that work to prevent the warehousing of these often marginalized populations," read the citation for the degree.

Along with his passion for medicine and the care of older adults, Bayne lived a life full of adventure, seeking out and telling stories, and embracing a joy of learning with open-mindedness and acceptance.

Dr. Ronald Bayne with his wife Barbara in an undated photograph.
Dr. Ronald Bayne with his wife Barbara in an undated photograph.

His wife Barbara, with whom he had five daughters, died in 2017. He had five grandchildren.

Bayne's advice to people over 60 is to figure out how to enjoy life with those closest to them.

"So they'll have happy memories after you're gone," he said.