CALGARY – A Calgary woman in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, has been granted a personal exemption that would allow doctors to help her die. It’s a ruling one advocate for physician-assisted death calls a win for compassion.
A Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta ruling dated Monday said the application for physician-assisted death was the first of its kind in Alberta, and in all likelihood the first outside Quebec, which passed legislation of its own late last year.
In January the Supreme Court gave the federal government an extra four months to come up with a national assisted dying framework but said that Canadians outside Quebec who are in pain and want help dying can apply to court for permission.
Watch below: Global’s ongoing coverage of the laws around physician-assisted death
“I am not suffering from anxiety or depression or fear of death,” she is quoted as saying in the ruling.
“I would like to pass away peacefully and am hoping to have physician-assisted death soon. I do not wish to have continued suffering and to die of this illness by choking. I feel that my time has come to go in peace.”
Ms. S., whose identity remains hidden per a publication restriction, made the application for exemption to the Alberta court on an expedited basis.
The ruling suggests she has at most six months to live. It says she describes herself as “severely disabled, quite weak and in my wheelchair.”
“I think it’s very rare to read court documents where a human face really comes forward, and they really have acknowledged her suffering and come up with an expedited process,” CEO of Dying with Dignity Canada Shanaaz Gokool said. She noted the application was heard Feb. 25 and the ruling came down Feb. 29.
“The ruling is one that reflects that on Feb. 29, when the ruling came down, that compassion has won the day for this individual, Ms. S.,” Gokool said. “And we hope the Alberta court process presents itself as the model during the interim process, so that people who meet the eligibility criteria will be able to access their Charter right to an assisted death.”
Ms. S. is unable to speak and almost completely paralyzed, but she says she is “still moving my left hand a little.” She communicates by typing or using a device that speaks from the text she can produce.
The long-time Calgary resident is a retired clinical psychologist, who worked in a psychiatric hospital for four years, followed by three decades in the health care system. Before she became sick, she was physically active and in good physical and mental health, according to the ruling.
“She was an award-winning dancer for many years, dancing three or four nights per week. She also loved reading, music, opera and studying languages.”
After her ALS diagnosis in April 2013, Ms. S. developed a speech impairment and the disease progressed rapidly from there.
“She attended and received ongoing treatment from the Calgary ALS and Motor Neuron Disease Clinic until October 2015,” the ruling stated. “She stopped attending when there was nothing more they could do to slow the progress of her illness.”
Ms. S. is in “significant pain” requiring constant care. She can’t swallow liquids, and uses a gastric tube to pump water into her stomach. She has muscle cramps, aching joints, and pain in her shoulders and neck. She prefers to be alert, so takes little pain medication.
The ruling says she has no children and two remaining family members don’t live in Canada. She lives with her spouse who has become her main caregiver.
“As I look back upon my life prior to this illness which began three years ago, I feel happy, as I have had a very healthy, productive and fulfilled life,” she’s quoted as saying in the article. “She states that despite their challenges, they have managed to keep a positive attitude and remain strong. She says their nine-year relationship has been the happiest of her life.”
Ms. S. is seeking a physician-assisted death in which two British Columbia doctors would provide her with medication to induce death. She plans to die on private property in Vancouver and no nurses will be involved, according to the ruling.
While it’s still a crime to help another person end their life, two recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions allow it if certain criteria are met.
“On January 6, 2016, the Supreme Court granted a personal constitutional exemption for competent adult persons who (1) clearly consent to the termination of life and (2) have a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition and that cannot be alleviated by any treatment acceptable to the individual,” reads the ruling.
The ruling finds Ms. S. has met the criteria involved, namely that she’s a competent adult, clearly consents to physician-assisted death, suffers from ALS—a grievous and irremediable medical condition—and that the ALS is causing enduring, intolerable suffering which can’t be alleviated by any treatment acceptable to her.
She explained her reluctance to take prescription medication for her pain: “it is not acceptable to me to live sedated to the point of unconsciousness until I choke on my own bodily fluids.”
The Feb. 29 ruling thus found Ms. S. qualifies for the exemption granted by the Supreme Court.