For Hélène L., June 6 did not mark a new era of compassion and choice. Instead, she was left to die in a manner “worse than dogs.”
For 20 years, the Quebec City woman suffered in agony as her multiple sclerosis gradually left her trapped in her own body. As she neared her 70th birthday, her condition had become unbearable. Living in immense pain, Hélène had use of only her left hand, but even that hand was weakening. She could not use her legs without the risk of serious falls, and she found herself increasingly dependent on nursing home workers.
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Unfortunately, Canada’s new assisted dying legislation offered Hélène no relief. She had been barred from accessing the medical aid in dying she so desperately needed because her natural death was not “reasonably foreseeable,” as required by law.
So, with her mind as sharp as ever despite her failing body, Hélène made the conscious decision to voluntarily starve herself to hasten her death and end her suffering because she could not bear the thought of living an immobile, bedridden life. It took 14 horrific days without food or water before she passed away on July 30.
Speaking out about her case, palliative care physician Dr. Pierre Viens wrote an op-ed for the French-language daily La Presse about the cruelty Hélène faced because she was ineligible for access to assisted dying under Bill C-14 and Quebec’s law. Despite the intolerable suffering she endured, her final attempts to seek medical aid in dying were rejected by four physicians. Hélène was told that the situation would have been different if she had aggressive cancer.
It was apparent to Hélène that the new laws are unconstitutional, but to fight against the legislation in court would have been too costly and time-consuming — and she needed an urgent solution.
Accompanying Hélène in her final agonizing days, Dr. Viens assured her that he would share her story. Hélène ultimately wanted the unconstitutional assisted dying laws to be changed so others wouldn’t have to resort to the same extreme measures to end their suffering.
In his op-ed, Dr. Viens called for Canada's restrictive and discriminatory assisted dying laws to be changed — for Hélène and for the thousands of desperately ill Canadians like her. He questioned what it really meant to be at the "end of life" with a "reasonably foreseeable" death when Hélène had lingered on the painful edge for 20 years.
As a human being made to laugh, love and hold her grandchildren in her arms, Hélène was not able to do any of the things that had made her life worth living. Was that not, Dr. Viens asked, a sign of being at the end of life?
(Header credit: Sam Caplat/Flickr)