By Gillian Slade on December 11, 2018.
After witnessing the excruciating death of her mother eight years ago, it was the complete opposite experience for a local woman’s husband who chose medical assistance in dying earlier this year.
“He went to sleep and just stopped breathing,” Snookie Welling says of her husband Jeff.
Welling’s mother was in hospital with bowel cancer when she died. She held her mother at the end as she screamed in pain even through the effects of morphine. It was an “ugly passing” that left a strong impression on both Welling and Jeff.
A year ago, after months of increasing back pain and severe acid reflux that would not go away, Jeff was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer that had metastasized to the liver and spread to his abdominal cavity.
“I didn’t want to lose him the way I lost by mother,” Welling said.
Jeff was not afraid to die. He did not want to die yet but also did not want to be in unbearable pain, she explained. The pain had already been increasing. Prescription medication took the edge off but he was never pain free.
Their daughter, Stephanie Meloney, made the initial call to Alberta Health Services about MAID, and someone came to the couple’s home to discuss the program and process.
Welling says the early stages were hard but Jeff was determined to get approved for MAID so it would be available when needed. His family doctor did the initial assessment to determine his eligibility and a week later there was a 45-minute appointment with another doctor.
Welling says discussion included details of the procedure, putting her mind at ease.
“You want this so desperately so that he doesn’t hurt but also don’t want to let go,” she explained.
After the physicians’ assessment the date for the procedure is left open with AHS requiring three days notice when the patient wants to go ahead.
Jeff’s health took a sudden turn for the worst. Their daughter says he went to sleep one night feeling reasonably OK but the next morning had chest pain and breathing difficulty and pain medication did not control the pain.
The MAID co-ordinator was notified that they were ready.
The night before the procedure paramedics had to attend to Jeff. He was in bed the next day when the doctor arrived.
The doctor was kind, honest and compassionate, Welling says. The doctor spoke with Jeff in the bedroom and then with the gathered family in the living room.
Holding Jeff in her arms the first medication took his pain away, Welling says. After months of pain Jeff said he was finally pain free; the furrows on his face finally relaxed.
The second medication put him into a coma, says Welling, who was still talking to him when the doctor touched her shoulder to say that he’d passed away.
“If death can be beautiful, it was beautiful,” she said.
Some people may feel their faith does not permit MAID and they may disagree with the Wellings’ decision but she says once you’ve experienced someone close to you having a terrible death you have a better understanding. She says others may feel MAID is “playing God” but in many respects medical intervention to sustain life could be considered the same thing
The MAID experience was very positive for them and Welling would like to see it added as an option for those diagnosed with dementia/Alzheimer’s.
Since June 2016, MAID has been provided to 517 people in Alberta with 61 of those in the south zone. The average age is about 70 and the most cited health conditions is cancer, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and advanced lung disease. A total of 132 people have requested MAID but did not meet the federal criteria to qualify.