Breathing as One

I don’t know what I was expecting when I walked down the stairs to that basement recording studio in Halifax – but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be talking to a young man about why he shouldn’t want to die.

I’m a physician. My specialty is serious respiratory diseases and so I spend quite a lot of my professional life talking to people about how we’re going to work together to keep them alive, healthy and active – at least to the extent that their condition will allow.

Jeremie Saunders was different – but I think I knew that the first time I met him on a cold January night in Toronto. Jeremie had flown in from Halifax to give the keynote address at the “Breathe! Gala”; a big bash that the Ontario Lung Association organizes every year to raise funds for lung research.

As chair of the Ontario Lung Association at the time, I was there to welcome our guest from the Maritimes but I didn’t know much about him. I’d been told that he had cystic fibrosis, that he’d somehow decided that being afflicted with this terminal illness was hilarious and that his mission in life is to convince the world that the best way to deal with life’s bad stuff is to laugh and keep laughing.

He’s very convincing. That night in Toronto, he had that crowd of doctors and government people and business types in the palm of his hand. We all laughed and a lot of us cried and when it was over we rose as one to acclaim this young man and his captivating, jump-in-boots-and-all philosophy of life . . .  and death.

Afterwards, I sought him out and we chatted briefly. I told him I’d be in Halifax for a conference in a few months and that I’d like to talk some more about his ideas for removing the stigma associated with serious illness by getting people to talk about it and, if possible, laugh about it.

I had an ulterior motive. As chair of the national fundraising campaign called Breathing as One – The Campaign for Lung Research, I am always looking for people of passion and commitment to become Breathing Ambassadors and speak out about the desperate need for more lung research funding in Canada.

And that – if you’ll pardon the digression – is why I found myself in that Halifax basement, podcast guest of Jeremie and his friends Brian and Taylor, thoroughly enjoying the back-and-forth with these tightly-knit friends. 

And then the conversation lands on lung transplantation. 

It’s a subject I know very well. I work at Toronto General Hospital, where Dr. Joel Cooper performed the world’s first successful single and double lung transplants back in the 1980s and where innovations in transplant continue to flourish. The hospital’s lung transplantation program is world famous and I am proud to be a part of it, serving on the intensive care unit that specializes in the management of transplant recipients.

So I bristle just a bit when Jeremie says that he has given the matter a lot of thought and has decided that if/when it comes to the point where his last treatment option is a lung transplant, he will say thanks anyway, decline the procedure and take his chances, which by that time will be zero. In short, he will choose to die.

Brian and Taylor have heard this speech before and they’re firmly on my side. As you listen to the podcast, you’ll hear the barely disguised anguish in their voices as they assail his position. They think that he’s fallen in love with the idea of dying young. He thinks he can achieve more in a short life than others who live into their 80s. 

After a few rounds of this, we make a deal. Jeremie will give the transplant issue some more thought and I’ll be there to guide him through the process, if and when it becomes the only option.

It feels like a victory – even more so when, a few weeks later, Jeremie sends an email to say that he, Brian and Taylor want to sign on ambassadors for the Breathing as One campaign.  

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