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Posted by on Apr 30, 2014 in Bioethics | 1 comment

Bioethics & bucket lists (30.04.2014)

Bioethics & bucket lists (30.04.2014)

Earlier this month my husband and I went to Dublin for a week; we had enough travel miles (which were set to expire) for a trip to Europe, but each of us had only a week of vacation left before the end of our respective employers’ May 30th vacation periods.

As we were planning our trip, we’d often be asked “Why Dublin?” Here in Montréal, the two most common European destinations seem to be London and Paris. We’d already visited each of those cities, as well the south of France (Provence), and Germany (primarily Heidelberg, but also Mainz, Mannheim, Saarbrücken, Stuttgart, and Ulm).

And my beloved grandmother was from Scotland, from north of Inverness, so I’d wanted to visit the Highlands & Islands since my childhood. By this time, my husband & I had already travelled to the country of my childhood stories – twice. During our first visit we spent a few days in Edinburgh, a week in Inverness, a week on the Isle of Skye, and a few days touring the Orkneys and the entire northern coast of Scotland.

Our second visit was for the wedding of dear friends in St Andrews in 2007, and we extended it by two weeks to include stays in Edinburgh, Stirling, and another week on the Isle of Skye. My heartfelt thanks to Siobhan & Steve, for asking me to do a reading during their wedding in St Andrew’s Castle. This remains one of my most memorable travel – and life – moments.

When the movie “The Bucket List” came out at the end of that year, a friend and I got together to write our own. My list included two things in, or within driving distance of, Dublin:

  • The (Scottish!) Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin(1)
  • Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne), the Neolithic passage tomb (2) about an hour from Dublin

Meanwhile my husband’s interest in his Irish heritage had been piqued by our visits to the places in which my grandmother had been born and raised. His mother’s family has a mostly French background, but his great-grandmother O’Brien had come to Canada from Dublin during Ireland’s Great Famine; sometime between 1845 and 1849. From her he inherited green eyes, and perhaps his wry sense of humour. By this time his bucket list included a visit to Ireland.

Photo of a seaside walking path

Tour Ireland: Howth Coastal Path

So with a week of vacation time and free flights to Europe, Dublin was an easy choice. As always, we were thankful to have the means to travel, as well as being in good enough health to do so. And yes, we had a fantastic trip.

We visited Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, many museums, the Jameson Distillery (where I was selected to be one of 4 ‘official tasters’ for the day); and the Guinness Storehouse (with the best view of Dublin from the round glass-walled Gravity Bar at the top of the building).

We did ‘haunted Dublin’ walking & bus tours, a literary walking tour, and the Howth Coastal Walk. From Howth we took a boat tour to Ireland’s Eye (Inis Mac Neasáin), a small island off the coast.

And we saw:

  • The Book of Kells, along with Trinity College and the spectacular library there
  • Calvary, an Irish film starring Brendon Gleeson, at the Irish Film Institute (IFI)
  • Irish dancers performing at The Church
  • Countless musicians performing in the Temple Bar area

Most touching was a tour of the Jeanie Johnston Tallship Museum (3), a replica of a ship built in Québec City in 1847 by a Scottish-born shipbuilder. She carried Irish families to North America 16 times, between 1847 to1855, with no loss of life.

No small feat during that period, particularly considering that she was built as a cargo ship rather than for passengers. She’s moored at a quay in Dublin, near the harbour, so we got a bit of the feeling of movement on the water during our tour.

Photo of a replica of a tall ship

Jeanie Johnston photo: Paul Johnston-Knight

The guide discussed the Famine, the living conditions on board, and even the history of some of the families who’d left Ireland aboard the Jeanie Johnston; they’ve managed to track down many of them.

There was an American family on our tour whose relative had taken that ship to Boston. When my husband mentioned his great-grandmother, the tour guide’s eyes lit up, and a quick call was made to their research office – to verify the recently-digitized passenger manifests.

They weren’t able to confirm her passage, but told us that most of the Jeanie Johnston’s trips were to Québec. They very rarely have visitors from Québec, so were very pleased to have my husband on board.

It was a fantastic moment for my husband as well; it was very moving to see the conditions in which his great-grandmother would have come across from Ireland…

And all over Dublin, O’Briens were being welcomed from around the world; we were there during the millennium celebrations marking the Death of Brian Borù (high king of Ireland) and the Battle of Clontarf (against the Norse, or Vikings, who’d settled in the Dublin area).

It was touching for him to see the O’Brien name everywhere around Dublin, as the name O’Brien is derived from Brian Borù. Almost every museum had a special Brian Borù section for the year, even the Viking Museum in Dublin.

Why talk about a trip to Dublin, in a post about bioethics? Because of the concept of bucket lists, of things a person wants to do before they die.

Do you recall a terminally-ill patient (or loved one), who had desperately wanted to do something on their ‘bucket list’ before they became too ill – but was unable to do so? Something that they’d really have liked to have done, before they died?

Were you able to do anything to help them achieve that bucket list moment, even partially? Did it even cross your mind to do so; that this might in some small way make their passing easier for them?

I read an interesting news item last week, which led to this post. What if a (relatively) new technology could let you do just that; to help a dying patient ‘live’ an experience, without ever leaving their bed?

A virtual reality (VR) headset and computer program allowed a dying woman to do something she was no longer able to do; take a walk outside. While still sitting in her chair.

The idea is that: “It’s about using something that was thought of as just a video game, a toy… and turning it into something more important than anyone could ever really understand.”(4)

I have no stake in VR companies or technologies, but can imagine a time in which palliative care centres and hospitals caring for terminally ill patients could offer them a library of virtual reality tours and experiences.

That an intake form for (alert & responsive) new patients – who could tolerate the VR headset, sensation of motion, etc. – could include a checklist of ‘experiences’ they could have at that centre.

I imagine that these VR experiences would have to be somewhat generic (for cost reasons), rather than providing personalized images of one’s family or home. But the technology could permit someone who loved to sail to be back on a boat for a few minutes. A patient who loved to travel could visit a new city…

The opportunities would seem to be endless, dependent only on the cost and resources required to support this type of service to terminally ill patients (sterilization and proper storage of the equipment, as examples).

And someday, if the technology becomes less expensive (as happened with the transition from 8-track tape to video tape, to on-line media), this could be offered to larger numbers of patients in hospitals or other care centres.

Perhaps pediatric hospitals could offer visits to theme parks, to allow children to temporarily escape the confines of a clinical environment.

That’s why this post started with a discussion of some of my ‘bucket list’ dreams; to put you in that frame of mind, of thinking what’s on your bucket list. To imagine how terminally ill patients could be helped to live their ‘bucket list’ experiences, before they run out of time.

(1) The Book of Kells. The Library at Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin. Web:

(2) Brú na Bóinne. Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltachts’ World Heritage Ireland. Web:

(3) Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship museum. Web:

(4) David Moss and Nicole Edine. Virtual Reality Lets Dying Woman ‘Walk’ Outside Again. Huffington Post. 25 Apr 25, 2014. Web:


1 Comment

  1. Enjoyable read. Someday VR headsets might really help pediatric patients, too.

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