Maggie Bristow can no longer bear to breathe because every breath sets her body afire with pain. The Ottawa woman has fibromyalgia and spinal stenosis, along with a host of other medical conditions, and wants nothing more than to be able to access medical assistance in dying. Physically unable to write her own story, Maggie spoke with Dying With Dignity Canada volunteer Liana Brittain, who helped Maggie put her excruciating pain into words.
Maggie has suffered with chronic pain for decades, and her quality of life has deteriorated to the point where she is now housebound and struggling to live independently. The medications offered by her medical team are ineffective, and she is exhausted and no longer wants to live isolated, in constant pain. Maggie’s wish is to have a medical assistance in dying (MAID) procedure that would allow her a humane release from the burdens that her disease-wracked body inflicts on her every moment of every day. Maggie wants to die.
Thirty years ago, Maggie was a dedicated employee who gradually worked her way up the corporate ladder in the aerospace industry to become an executive assistant. In her spare time, Maggie fostered shelter dogs. She provided them with basic dog training until they could be adopted. Sometimes, Maggie would adopt her charges. She taught her first adopted dog, Sophie, how to walk around signs and poles, on command, by walking closer to the back of her wheelchair. That way, Maggie and her companion animal could avoid getting tangled up in a variety of situations. Eventually, she met a wonderful man and they became engaged. Life looked full of hope and promise.
Through all this, Maggie struggled with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. Like so many people with fibromyalgia, her medical problems became complicated and led to other co-morbid disorders and issues. Life began to deteriorate. With the sudden death of her fiancé, Maggie faced a lonely and difficult future.
Maggie had always enjoyed an active social life with a few close friends. As the fibromyalgia and her other medical problems intensified, she found that it was difficult to stay in touch and be socially active. Like many people with chronic pain, her days were unpredictable and declining invitations became more common. Friendships gradually drifted away.
Today, life is unbearable. Her skin and body have become ultra sensitive to touch, so simple things like bathing or dressing are now dreaded tortures. Life below the poverty line is brutal. There are no financial resources for additional treatments that might bring short-term temporary relief from the pain such as massage therapy or acupuncture. Without the help of her family to provide Meals on Wheels, basic sustenance would be non-existent. Walking is so difficult and painful that it’s impossible for her to visit her fiancé’s grave, even though it’s only fifteen minutes from her home. She’s even unable to access home care because her physical pain is so unpredictable that it’s impossible to set up a regular schedule of visits with caregivers. Maggie’s life has spiralled downward into a morass of excruciating chronic pain and crippling isolation. It no longer has purpose or quality.
Maggie reached out to Dying With Dignity Canada, looking for help that would lead to a MAID procedure. With their support and guidance, she has submitted a written request to an ethicist at The Ottawa General Hospital, hoping that she will qualify for assisted dying. Maggie is caught in the difficult area of the guidelines established in Bill C-14 that indicates a patient’s death must be reasonable foreseeable. That is difficult to establish for people suffering from chronic illnesses who may suffer interminable pain, degradation, and abysmal quality of life for many decades before they finally succumb to their deteriorating bodies. Maggie wants to change all that. In the days to come, as she waits for word from the ethicist that will determine her future, Margaret Bristow hopes she’ll be granted the right to end all her suffering. She wants to be empowered to make her own end-of-life choices. Maggie wants the right to have a peaceful, compassionate death.
DWDC is immensely grateful to Maggie for sharing her story. We are deeply saddened to report that Maggie has since been denied access to medical assistance in dying. She is currently pursuing opportunities to contest the decision.
Liana Brittain provides dual advocacy for chronic pain and medical assistance in dying. She is also the architect of the Living in Pain Successfully program. She has written about her chronic pain in her book, A Gentle Warrior. DWDC thanks her for helping Maggie tell her story.