Family travels to Swiss clinic to help mother 'die with dignity'
Special to CTV.ca
Published Saturday, January 30, 2010 1:36PM EST
In September, 2009, CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip profiled a chronically ill, 89-year-old Canadian woman who wanted to die.
We called her “Mary,” but we can now tell you her real name was Kay, though her family still chooses not to reveal their full names.
Kay suffered from a spinal stenosis, a condition that put pressure on her spinal cord and that was soon to leave her completely immobile. With no hope of recovery, she decided she was ready to have someone end her life.
With assisted suicide illegal in Canada, Kay chose to spend the last of her life savings to travel to Switzerland, where it is legal, and have members of an assisted suicide group called Dignitas help her die.
Earlier this month, Kay and three of her children travelled to Zurich together. Here, one of her children provides CTV with this account of Kay’s final days.
In North America, we live in a culture that “cheats” death, avoids its presence and marginalizes its place in our lives. Our shared experience with Kay was the inverse of all this. Kay’s belief that personal choice includes death was a long established theme.
Canada considers assisted death a crime and this forced Kay’s departure to put into action her beliefs and fulfill her last request. One of the few options available was to travel to Switzerland where this process is considered normal. While the whole process took about five months, it meant that people had a chance to make peace with Kay and with themselves. The cathartic effect of this was profound. Personal regrets, pent-up emotions, love, and anger were all given voice and as a result of this, release.
For those of us with Kay during her week in Zurich this understanding was brought to a much higher level – one that each of us would like to bring to you. I will tell you the story of that week and try to share how it affected each of us.
Kay gave the conventional process of death a makeover by announcing that it was her intention to end it herself. The reality that this death might be penciled into a calendar was unsettling for some, because death normally runs to its own timepiece and Kay had just set her own watch. Never the one to shy from controversy, Kay knew her choice would provoke debate and bring deeply held beliefs under scrutiny.
Kay never required that anyone agree with her choice – she never tried to convert – she just stated her case and walked her path. Our time with Kay gave us an insight into the world she had been living in: the discomfort, the humiliation, and the pain. What was amazing was that she was able to remain positive while living in this condition. Her energy levels had been lessening, but in Zurich, they were deteriorating by the day. In spite of this, we went out for meals, we talked and laughed.
Kay spoke with a doctor on two occasions in Switzerland as part of their process and on the second, he came to her room at the hotel. He asked Kay again if she was sure she wanted to die. Kay paused and then stated clearly, “I want to die with dignity.”
On Friday, Jan. 15, 2010, we awoke at 7 a.m. The girls got Mom dressed in a top her sister had given her and she gave instructions on where items were to go when she was gone. After this we went downstairs and had a great breakfast while we talked about the news of the day (Haiti’s earthquake and how little she thought of the news reporting). Upstairs for brushing of teeth, donning of fuzzy hat and blazer then back down at 10:20 to the waiting cab.
After a nice drive into the country, we arrived at a pleasant little house that looked like any other in a small town. We were welcomed like old friends by a couple, Erika and Horst (who looked for all the world like Heidi’s parents). They were wonderful; they smiled, greeted and hugged us all. Erika knelt down to Mom in the cab, held her hands and with a smile said: “So Kay, are you ready?” Kay replied, “Ready!”
We entered a large room like a big kitchen with a bed and a large round table with lots of chairs. Horst offered everyone coffee or tea while Erika and the rest of us finished some paperwork. Erika then reviewed the process with Kay – first a small drink to quieten her stomach taken 20 minutes before the second drink that would bring death 15 minutes after that.
Erika then reemphasized that there was no hurry. “Do you want to start now or in a few hours?” she asked. “Right now,” said Mom in her cheery voice, “Let’s get going.”
We all sat around the table and Mom drank the first drink. We continued to talk about Dignitas and the journey for all of us to get to Switzerland – everyone including Mom was part of the conversation. When 20 minutes had passed we all moved to the bed where we all could be next to Kay. It was so comfortable, so right and so peaceful, not at all sad.
We took a photo of all of us on the bed: Kay in the middle surrounded by her children and her friends, happy and content, looking forward to her last adventure. She is bright, clear, happy and sure.
With a video camera recording, Erika knelt down, held Kay's hands, looked into her eyes and asked: "Kay, are you sure that you want to die?" to which Kay replied: "Yes, I want to die." Erika smiled, kissed her and said, "Wait for me on the other side."
We had been told that the second drink was bitter so after Kay sipped it in one go, we all popped a sweet Swiss chocolate into our mouths. We all said how much we loved her and we thanked her for sharing this experience with us. I think it was dawning on all of us that there would not be some defining moment when “she would be gone.”
It was such a gentle process; she was gently fading away, falling asleep. (She even started to snore!) Erika felt that even though she was sleeping ever deeper, she could still hear us. So we continued to talk to her as she travelled away.
After 20 minutes, Horst checked her pulse and confirmed that Kay was dead. Then Erika opened the patio doors to the Swiss countryside, the curtains billowed away and she said with a smile, “so her spirit can fly away.”
Gradually, we all moved away from the bed and back to the kitchen table where we talked together about this profound experience. The police were called as a normal part of the process, as was the coroner. After an hour or so they arrived and introduced themselves. Everyone was courteous and calm. The coroner and her assistant examined Kay while the police asked us a few questions, mostly about how long she had been committed to this process (her whole life) and her physical condition for the past few months.
Once all parties were satisfied that this had been Kay’s wish fulfilled, the coroner and police departed. As we waited for the cab to take us back to Zurich, we all hugged and thanked Horst and Erika for helping setting Kay and us on our way.
If there were any part of this process that I hope that I can convey to you, it would be the peacefulness of that day. All of us felt that we came away better and more grounded as people after this experience and even more at peace with Mom’s choice.
In a way, the entire protracted process has been a gradual ramping down of grief. When our dad died, it took me a year to be able to reminisce and laugh about his memory. Mom’s gift to me was a release from that term. I was laughing with her memory minutes after she had left. Rather than a deep sense of loss, Mom has given me a profound sense of prospective of life, and of death. And that is quite a legacy.