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Finding death, when the assisted dying law leaves you out

Despite new legislation on assisted dying, some Canadians remain in a desperate catch-22. Ruth Duffin was one.
A photograph of Shelley Duffin’s mother and father hangs in her home. Shelley and her Father reflect on her mother’s passing through assisted suicide which occured in Switzerland due to narrowly being denied the right in Canada. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)
Shelley Duffin and her father reflect on her mother's passing through assisted suicide in Switzerland—because she was narrowly denied the right in Canada. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)
Shelley Duffin and her father reflect on her mother’s passing through assisted suicide in Switzerland—because she was narrowly denied the right in Canada. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

Sometimes, Shelley Duffin will make a batch of cookies and think, “Okay, I’ve baked.” And then she remembers what a day of baking meant for her mother, Ruth: a few pies, maybe a loaf, muffins, scones, cookies, Chelsea buns with raisins—a mountain of fresh treats piled up when her kids and husband arrived home after her day off. There would be pounds of butter stacked in the freezer like gold bricks, ready for next time.

Ruth was the grandmother down on the floor playing with her grandkids—five granddaughters and a grandson—letting them play dress-up with her clothes or dishing out hands of Go Fish. It was important to her always to look well put-together; setting her hair with a curling iron was a must. It pleased her when people complimented her appearance. But in the last few years, as Parkinson’s disease took hold, if someone said she looked nice, she would joke darkly, “I’d like to bop them, because I don’t feel good.”

MORE: Why Canada’s assisted dying law is confusing doctors—and patients

Bit by bit, the disease that caused her limbs to bounce with tremor forced her to make accommodations in order to do the things she loved, and then made them impossible. So at exactly the same time as Canadian lawmakers, doctors and citizens were grappling with the Supreme Court decision permitting doctor-assisted death last spring, Ruth decided that she wanted to die. “For many years, I was able to manage as the disease gradually whittled away at the things I held dear,” she wrote in a letter. “I am now at the point, however, where there is nothing I look forward to except an end to my suffering. I have gradually lost all of myself.” But while Ruth, her family and her doctors felt certain that she qualified under the criteria of the Supreme Court decision, the narrower legislation shaped by Parliament appeared to exclude her. And so she, like an untold number of other Canadians, made an excruciating decision to travel to Switzerland to seek assisted death, in the shadow of a new Canadian law that appears to offer little clarity even to the people accessing and enacting it in the most dire circumstances.

Ruth Duffin was a stay-at-home parent when Shelley and her older brothers, Paul and David, were growing up in Dundas, Ont., a town of 11,000 on the edge of Hamilton. Later, she managed the greeting-card section in a drug store until she retired in 2006. The year after she retired, Ruth suffered a transient ischemic attack, or “mini-stroke,” and the tremor began soon after. Her doctor diagnosed her with Parkinson’s disease in 2008, and she was put on a range of medications to try to control her symptoms.

At first, she could fit her life around her illness. She and her husband, Richard, went on several cruises, and closer to home, they loved to play the penny slots at a racetrack in Hamilton or visit Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls for shows and meals. Ruth timed her baking around tremor-free times of day, then Richard became her devoted sous-chef when she needed more help. Eventually, the baking and outings stopped.

Ruth’s tremors were increasingly difficult to quell even with escalating dosages of medication. “Because she was shaking so much, it was just like a workout,” Richard says. Pain radiated through Ruth’s back and shoulders, and she would become overheated from the exertion. In the early days of her disease, the family called Richard “the Parkinson’s whisperer” because he could hold Ruth’s hand and calm the tremor. But that didn’t work anymore. All the things that had given Ruth pleasure, including their travels, fell away. “After that, she said she couldn’t do it anymore. I said okay,” Richard recalls, gasping back a sob. “She just deteriorated.” Ruth left the house very little and fretted about their three-day Christmas visits to Shelley’s family in Ottawa, each year insisting she couldn’t go again. “This year was the final year,” Shelley says of 2015. “I believed it—I knew there wouldn’t be another.”

A photograph of Shelley Duffin's mother and father hangs in her home.(Photograph by Jessica Deeks)
A photograph of Shelley Duffin’s mother and father hangs in her home.(Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

Last March break, Shelley took her two young daughters to Dundas. One night after the girls were in bed, Ruth was lying on the couch when she said, “Shelley, this is no way to live.” Shelley replied, “I know it’s not, Mom. Tell me what you want, I’ll do anything.” Ruth said, “There’s nothing you can do.” Not long after that visit, Ruth was seized by a tremor that lasted 11 hours. That pushed things into crisis: after that, each time a tremor began anew, she was consumed by anxiety about how long it would last.

That weekend—Easter weekend—Ruth had her sister over and then her son, Paul, and his wife, and told them she wanted to end her life. She’d long since stopped having phone conversations because they were too difficult, but she spoke to Shelley on Easter Sunday, telling her she loved her and she wanted to die. Shelley was taken aback, but not shocked; she had seen how bad things were. “Do I need to come now?” Shelley recalls asking her father. He assured her nothing was imminent, but two days later, he called in a panic: Ruth was suddenly talking about desperate measures like walking out of the house to step in front of a transport. Shelley got on a train the next morning.

To cope with her feelings of helplessness since her mother’s phone call, Shelley had started researching the current state of doctor-assisted death in Canada. She contacted Dying With Dignity and End of Life Planning Canada, a sister organization that handled advice and support for patients and families. When Shelley arrived in Dundas, she and her parents had a clear-eyed talk about Ruth’s options. Voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (known as VSED) was the only realistic legal option until the law changed, but they agreed that wasn’t palatable: it seemed like a horrible, drawn-out way to die. A few years before, Shelley had done some research on the Dignitas assisted-death organization in Switzerland, thinking it may be a consideration in their future. But when she brought it up now, Ruth wouldn’t hear of the idea—she was concerned about the cost to her family.

And so their entire focus became June 6, when Canadian law would change. Under the parameters of the Supreme Court decision, it seemed certain to them that Ruth would qualify: she was mentally competent, had an irremediable medical condition and was suffering intolerably. They just had to make it to the deadline on the Supreme Court decision, when the law prohibiting assisted death would expire. “We just needed a plan to get to June 6,” Shelley says. They decided Ruth would make an effort each day to go for a walk or just sit in the sun, and they would meanwhile talk to her family doctor and get in place all the necessary approvals so that when the law changed, they were ready.

Before Ruth told her family members, she had discussed her desire to die with Richard several times. It was brutal for him, but he understood: everything that had given shape and joy to her life was gone. “She just suffered so much,” he says. “I tried to look after her the whole time and I just couldn’t do nothing.” The nights were the worst, when the tremor made all but a few hours of sleep impossible and Ruth would beg for another pill hours before her next dose was due.

Over the next month, Ruth was hospitalized twice; doctors first increased her medication to better control her symptoms, then backed off the dosage when she appeared to suffer paranoid delusions as a side effect. When she was discharged, they were given generous homecare, but when a bed came up in a long-term care facility, she would have to take it or lose the in-home help. Ruth abhorred the idea, so they simply hoped a place wouldn’t come up before she could end things on her own terms.

In the meantime, Ruth had a productive conversation with her family doctor. On June 6, the law prohibiting assisted death in Canada expired with the Supreme Court deadline; Parliament was still debating the legislation, so the parameters of the court’s decision applied in the interim. The following day, Ruth formally made her request for assisted death to her family doctor.

But 10 days later, before she and her family could work through all the paperwork, the House of Commons rejected an amendment the Senate had insisted on, which would have made assisted death available to those whose demise wasn’t “reasonably foreseeable,” and sent Bill C-14 back to the Red Chamber. “What the government of Canada has said is: ‘You have a right to medical assistance in dying if you’re suffering from those conditions and have up to a few months to live, but if you’re going to be suffering that way for a few years, we aren’t going to give you that right,’ ” Kelvin Ogilvie, co-chair of the special joint committee on physician-assisted dying argued on the Senate floor. “I submit to you, for all of the arguments we have heard about the importance of the Charter of Rights protecting minorities and the vulnerable, that is the most vulnerable situation that any Canadian could find themselves in.”

(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
(Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

At work, Shelley listened to audio from the Senate on her computer. As she heard the votes piling up, she kept thinking there must be more senators than she realized, because she was so sure they would stand their ground. But the Senate ceded to the House, and the bill passed. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s office says now that the law “represents the right approach for Canada at this important time in our country’s history,” adding, “The legislation was carefully and deliberately crafted as a cohesive, responsible and balanced regime.” Instantly, Shelley was sure her mother wasn’t eligible. She left her office and went for a walk, sobbing. That night, she called her parents to explain that the window of opportunity had closed. “That was the worst weekend, I think, of our lives,” Shelley recalls. Now, out of necessity, Ruth was willing to consider Switzerland.

The wait for an appointment for assisted death in Switzerland is typically three to four months. Ruth was past desperation, so Shelley moved rapidly, setting up memberships in two organizations, Dignitas and LifeCircle. “I had explained the situation: ‘We don’t have time, my mom is talking about how she wants to step in front of a bus,’ ” she says.

In the meantime, in early July, a bed came up and Ruth moved into a long-term care facility. She needed help to move around or even eat; for the fastidious woman who had curled her hair each day before she left the house, it was too much.

All documentation was sent to the Swiss organizations; Ruth’s membership and request for assisted death were approved, which meant simply waiting for an opening. In late July, Shelley got an email from Ruedi Habegger, a volunteer with LifeCircle. There had been a cancellation and an appointment was available on Aug. 18. Ruth told them to take it. “It wasn’t fast enough,” says Shelley. She booked flights for the three of them immediately (they estimate the trip cost $28,000 in total, including fees from the Swiss organizations). As the days and weeks went by, Ruth would tell Richard, “I’ll never make it,” and asked how much longer. He would tell her the number of days until they left to make it seem shorter or simply say, “You don’t want to know, dear. A few days.”

They had a “hellish” trip that left no time for thinking about the larger reality: that if everything went according to plan, only two of them would make the return trip. Waiting in the lounge for their flight to Zurich, Ruth was seized by a terrible tremor; they dipped napkins in water, trying to cool and calm her. “We were just in constant crisis,” Shelley says. “Because we’d had so many roadblocks, I couldn’t believe any of this was going to happen.” On the flight, they were seated in pod-like business-class seats, making it difficult for Shelley and Richard to help Ruth. She had a moment of muscle rigidity when it was time to exit the plane, and the flight crew had to virtually carry her.

The June 17, 2009 file photo shows a house in Pfaeffikon near Zurich, Switzerland, where the medically assisted suicide organization Dignitas accompanies people, willing to die, into death since July 1, 2009. (Steffen Schmidt/Keystone/AP/CP)
The June 17, 2009 file photo shows a house in Pfaeffikon near Zurich, Switzerland, where the medically assisted suicide organization Dignitas accompanies people, willing to die, into death since July 1, 2009. (Steffen Schmidt/Keystone/AP/CP)

Habegger picked them up at the airport in Zurich. Ruth was exhausted from the trip and beside herself with the pain and exertion of the tremor. “Driving the car, I had tears in my eyes,” Habegger says. “I’ve never seen somebody suffer so much.” Swiss authorities require approval from two doctors in Switzerland who see the patient, so Habegger drove them directly to the first doctor, in Zurich, and the second came to see them in their hotel room in Basel. Shelley and Richard were worried that something might have gone wrong in adjusting Ruth’s medication to the time difference, and if she suffered side effects, it might look like her competency was in doubt. But Ruth was lucid and eloquent. “I shouldn’t have to travel to Switzerland to achieve this,” Shelley recalls her telling one doctor. “This is just wrong.”

The following day, the anesthesiologist who would be assisting in Ruth’s death called their hotel and said he wanted to meet them. When he arrived, Ruth was laid out flat on the bed, rocked by tremor, demanding help immediately. Shelley was panicked by the awkward, stressful conversation, certain everything was about to fall apart and somehow the third doctor would doubt her mother’s competency, but he took it in stride.

The final night of Ruth’s life, her tremor and the radiating misery it caused kept the three of them up all night. Ruth kept insisting, “I’m not going to make it,” and Shelley kept reminding her that she’d survived months she didn’t think she could endure, and there was just one more night to go.

For outsiders who travel to Switzerland to die, LifeCircle maintains a suite of rooms in the industrial town of Liestal, just south of Basel. Over the half-hour drive with Habegger behind the wheel, Shelley and Richard noticed Ruth’s tremor stilled, and a calm they hadn’t seen in a long time settled over her. “She was finally getting what she wanted,” Shelley says. “I think she felt at peace, because there were so many things that should have set off that tremor.”

When they arrived, it was just the three of them, along with the anesthesiologist and Habegger. First, there was all the official paperwork to fill out, then they moved into the comfortable room where Ruth would die. The anesthesiologist set Ruth up in a bed and put an IV line in her arm, then filmed her answering competency-confirming questions like her name, where she lived, why she had come there and what would happen when she turned a valve on the IV line. “When they laid her on the bed and they put the intravenous in her arm, she seemed to be relaxed,” Richard says. “She knew it wasn’t going to be too long now.” He and his daughter sat with Ruth, holding her hands. They told her what a wonderful wife and mother she was, and that they would miss her terribly but they were here with her. She told Shelley she would miss the kids.

With Habegger recording everything to present to the authorities afterward, the anesthesiologist connected the sodium pentobarbital to the IV line. When Ruth was ready, with Richard holding one hand, Shelley at her shoulder and Habegger laying a hand on her other shoulder, she activated the valve that sent the drug into her veins. In seconds, she relaxed and fell into sleep; within a few minutes, around 10:30 a.m., her breathing slowed and her heart stopped. “She was surrounded by love and calmness,” Shelley says.

At first, Richard and Shelley simply did what they’d been doing all along: they stayed by Ruth’s side. Eventually, the police, coroner and a medical-legal body were called to confirm her death and ensure everything had been done legally. While they waited, Shelley lay down on a couch near her mother’s body and dropped away into the best sleep she’d had in a long time. When she awoke, she made tea for Richard and they waited while the police verified everything; each time he left the room, Richard checked on Ruth. Once everything had been cleared, the anesthesiologist offered to drive them back to Basel. Habegger stayed behind with Ruth’s body to finalize all the legalities.

In the car, Shelley, Richard and the doctor talked about his work with LifeCircle, and he told them it had been helpful for him to see Ruth the night before he helped her die, so he understood her suffering. He stopped at the train station and helped them navigate a German-language machine to order tickets to the airport the next morning. Before they said goodbye, Shelley fetched her mother’s walker from the hotel room; she gave it to the doctor to pass along to Habegger, who was going to find someone who needed it.

Shelley doesn’t carry a smartphone, so it wasn’t until late afternoon back at the hotel that she contacted her brothers to tell them Ruth was gone. She and her father were exhausted; they set an alarm that would wake them to pack their bags, and fell asleep. They had booked a return ticket for Ruth just in case something went wrong. When they woke, Shelley emailed her former sister-in-law, a travel agent, to cancel Ruth’s ticket; there would be nothing to explain to the airline.

When they flew home, Shelley went back to Dundas with her father, then returned to her family in Ottawa the following day. Before she left, she had simply told her daughters, age eight and six, that Grammy was not doing well and she was going to help. When she came home, they asked how she died, and Shelley said she went to a place for people who are ready to die. They haven’t asked any more than that.

MORE: The end-of-life counsellors at ground zero of assisted death

There are no current statistics on the number of Canadians like Ruth who have travelled to Switzerland to die. A 2014 study found that between 2008 and 2012, 12 Canadians did so; work is just beginning on an update to that study. Habegger says that in the 18 months before C-14 came into effect, 12 Canadians ended their lives with LifeCircle, which is a small and relatively new organization. Since the Canadian legislation came into effect, five more Canadians have died with the help of the organization, and they expect 20 more over the coming year.

Both the restrictiveness of the Canadian law and the vagueness of the “reasonably foreseeable” language was criticized by senators who resisted including that clause, and by other critics of C-14 who saw it as incompatible with the Supreme Court decision. Wilson-Raybould’s office, however, now says the ambiguity was deliberate to give flexibility to doctors and nurse practitioners assessing patients, and it “does not impose any specific requirements in terms of prognosis or proximity to death.” The justice minister’s office adds, “It therefore extends eligibility both to those with fatal diseases that progress rapidly and linearly, such as those with a prognosis of six months or less, and to those with conditions that deteriorate unpredictably over a longer period of time.”

But that was certainly not clear to Ruth, her family or her doctors. They continued working to get the two required physician approvals in Canada even after the law passed, simply because the wheels were in motion and so many things had already not worked out. Ruth’s family doctor wrote a letter stating that she was “willing to help with her request,” but as the law required a patient’s death to be “imminent” and Ruth was not at that stage, her hands were tied. “This law will be challenged in court over the next period of time,” the doctor wrote. “Unfortunately, at this moment in time, I cannot assist Ruth in this process as I have to act in accordance with the law.” A second doctor interpreted “reasonably foreseeable” differently and gave his opinion that Ruth did qualify. The Duffins couldn’t get an appointment with a third doctor who may have approved her request until September, a month after Ruth finally ended her life in Switzerland.

She didn’t want a funeral or memorial service, and Shelley didn’t want her father having to answer for his wife’s decision, so they simply put an announcement in the paper, directing donations to Dying With Dignity. “I haven’t got any patience any more for people who don’t accept this,” Shelley says of people who question her mother’s choice. “If you don’t agree, that’s fine—just like there are abortion laws you may never use, you don’t have to avail yourself of it. It does not devalue your life that my mom has an opportunity to be able to humanely end hers.”

They’re not people who like to put themselves on public display, she says, but they’ve shared their story because they are so disturbed that other people are suffering who should have an option according to the Supreme Court, but are apparently excluded by the law. “To be crass, if you’re dying, you have an out. Your curtain is falling,” Shelley says. “My 70-year-old mother was looking at these crazy, violent ways she could kill herself. She shouldn’t have been reduced to that. My dad shouldn’t have had her asking him, ‘Just tell me how I can die. Give me the pills. Give me anything.’ ”

Richard asks Shelley sometimes if she misses her mother or if she’s grieving. The way Shelley looks at it, to really feel grief, you have to open yourself up to it, and she hasn’t quite done that yet. She’s still so relieved that there isn’t much room for mourning, but sometimes in moments alone, she’ll chat with her mother.

Richard did a lot of crying on the flight home from Zurich. Since then, he’s washed all of Ruth’s clothes and put them back in her drawers and closet. “I didn’t want her to die, but what can I do? She couldn’t live like that, and I know it’s what she wanted,” he says. “It was no life for her. She lost everything. I miss her.”

About six weeks after she died, he received Ruth’s ashes in the mail from Switzerland; Habegger had offered to bring them next time he visited Canada, but Richard wanted them with him as soon as possible. Next summer, the family will scatter them at Sauble Beach, where they spent a lot of happy days over the years. For now, though, they sit on the dresser. Richard talks to Ruth all the time, the way he used to.