Death is never easy. It’s a subject often avoided, a painful and difficult period in life that affects so many.
While the emotions surrounding death are unpleasant, they are a necessary part of life.
As is death itself.
For 91-year-old Shirley Quinn, death was not only inevitable but desired.
The Armstrong resident had endured months of suffering due to the debilitating pulmonary fibrosis her body battled.
At a stage where she could no longer handle the grips of the disease, Quinn elected for her civil right and signed up for Medical Assistance in Dying.
Story as published June 11, 2018:
At 91 years old, barely able to sleep, eat and even breathe, Shirley Quinn woke up each day wishing it would be her last. Desperate to end her suffering, Quinn signed up for the medical assistance in dying (MAiD) program.
“My time has come,” said the former Armstrong resident, as the last few months have been unbearable.
“She doesn’t want to live a month, or even a week longer,” said daughter Kathryn MacDonald of her mother’s intolerable suffering. “Every time she wakes up in the morning she says, ‘I thought I would go, I just want to go.’”
In the last stages of pulmonary fibrosis, she outlived her prognosis — living with the debilitating disease for 13 years above the normal five to seven.
“She’s got a strong heart but her lungs are giving out so she’s afraid that she’s going to drown,” said MacDonald of the suffocating feeling.
The perpetual shortness of breath is literally exhausting for Quinn: “This is driving me nuts, it keeps me up all night long.”
While caregivers at the North Okanagan Hospice Society have been “incredible” and provided Quinn with every comfort, there was just nothing anyone could do to relieve her which is why she came to her decision.
“We can’t go on forever,” said Quinn, between fits of coughing as her lungs filled up with fibres.
As a life-long social activist, signing petitions advocating for human rights, medically assisted dying is something she always agreed with. In fact, she’s had her sights on it ever since it passed federal legislation in 2016.
“I was delighted because I believe it is a civil right and we should all be able to,” said Quinn, adding that while not everybody wants to access the program she sees no reason why anyone would object to her decision.
“It’s being in control when you really have no control,” said MacDonald, adding that the entire family supports her decision.
“She’s lived a very full life.”
Adds MacDonald’s husband Ian: “She has no regrets.”
But the process of joining MAiD isn’t as easy as calling the doctor. Paperwork needs to be filled out and filed, a number of questions need to be answered and witnesses secured.
See related: Number of medically assisted deaths in B.C. rise
The patient, like Quinn, must be of sound mind and fully cognizant of their decision (both when making the request and at the time of death). And, again like Quinn, the patient must have a grievous irremediable diagnosis, meaning it will not get better.
On top of the criteria, a physician must be found who is comfortable administering the program (as not all are active participants).
Due to the relatively new practice and the controversy surrounding it, the doctor who agreed to Quinn’s medical assistance in dying did not want his name made public, but he is a strong supporter of the program.
“I believe in it,” said the Vernon doctor. “It’s what I’d want for my mom and me.”
As for Quinn, he says the decision made sense considering her age and condition.
“She’s 91, she certainly has seen enough in this world,” he said, adding that he joined the program to alleviate unnecessary suffering.
Following the approval, patients are given a 10-day consideration period, during which there are provisions to revoke approvals.
“All of the boxes you have to click have been clicked,” said Quinn with a sense of relief after meeting with the doctor. “I just want this to happen quickly.”
During the 10-day period, not one of the Vernon doctor’s patients has ever changed their mind, but most have died waiting.
Thankfully for Quinn’s sake, she was able to die at her request.
It was exactly 10 days after her assessment that Quinn died at the hospital, where MAiD had to be administered.
She was administered a substance by injection that causes death. The other option is a prescribed drug that the eligible person takes themselves in order to bring about their own death.
“Mom smiled at us all gathered around the bed in the hospital with the doctor ready to begin, and said ‘I’m going to be fine. You four go out for dinner afterwards.’ Always looking out for her family,” said MacDonald. “She was the glue that held us together. She wanted to be sure that even without her we would stay close, starting immediately after her death.”
Toronto-born — Quinn lived in Quebec and Abbotsford before moving to Armstrong. Prior to moving to Hospice, Quinn was a resident of The Victorian Retirement Residence, “a lovely place,” said MacDonald.
Even up to her final day, Quinn enjoyed visiting with family — especially cuddles with her daughter’s dog KK — and seeing her youngest great-granddaughter for the first time. She enjoyed watching the news on MSNBC and one of her last meals was cream soup and maple walnut ice cream.
Being able to utilize the program gave Quinn, and her family, the peace she needed to finally pass. And it’s a story they all wanted to share.
“It’s important for people to be educated about MAiD so that others may not suffer needlessly,” MacDonald said.
Even one of Quinn’s final wishes was that her story would help others, and continued efforts would be made to ensure the right.
“I hope people pay attention to it because I do believe I’m fortunate that B.C. has that,” Quinn said just days prior to her passing.
“The right to medical assistance in dying should be incorporated into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms with appropriate limitations or safeguards to prevent abuse.”