The Calgary woman who was just granted special permission to end her life with help from a doctor was an "absolutely remarkable person" who knew exactly what she wanted, and was determined to overcome the obstacles in her way, according to one of her best friends. 

"She is an inspiration. She knew where she was going. She's always been an agent of change in life," said Ms. V, a professor emerita at the University of Calgary, who was at her bedside when she died. 

Ms. S was a psychologist who understood herself and knew her own mind, said Ms. V. Neither woman can be identified because of a court-ordered publication ban.

She had been contemplating doctor-assisted death for the past three years after receiving her ALS diagnosis in 2013.

By July, she was resolute, Ms. V said. 

"She continuously was asked, 'Do you want to go ahead with this? We can change it at any time.' She always gave us the thumbs up sign her eyes were always with us," said Ms. V.

"I said to her, 'I often feel like I'm on two tracks. One track is I don't want to lose you. You're my dear friend. I've known you for 34 years. I will feel your loss every day of my life,'" Ms. V said.

"The other track is, 'You've already made a decision. You know what the obstacles are ... you know what we have to try to get through.'"

Ms. V said Ms. S felt incredibly supported by the ALS society and clinic in Alberta, but she did not want to continue living in constant pain. 

On Monday night, Ms. S ended her life in Vancouver with the help of two physicians after receiving a legal exemption to do so from Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sheilah Martin.

"It was sad, but it was also enriching," M.V. said. "I think we did something ... that will open doors for many people."

Difficulties of assisted-dying in Alberta

Ms. S had applied and been approved to end her life at Switzerland's euthanasia clinic Lifecircle, but as her condition became more disabling, it became apparent that the long journey would not be possible.

"It's thinking of all the things that could go wrong. She's on a feeding tube. She gets water through her tube. Her neck is in a brace. How are we going to manage the long flight?" Ms. V said.

Though Canada's current law allows doctors to assist individuals in ending their lives under special circumstances, few if any professionals in Alberta were interested in helping Ms. S, Ms. V said.

"Try and find a physician who's willing to do this in Calgary. Try and find even a lawyer."

Ms. V said she sent letters imploring Alberta's Health Minister Sarah Hoffman and Alberta Health Services for assistance in locating a doctor who would be willing to assist, but to no avail. 

"Certainly it would have been a lot easier to travel within Calgary, because every movement was painful for her," Ms. V said.

Better guidelines needed, says doctor

Through a friend of a friend, Ms. S was put in contact with Dr. W, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia and one of the doctors that ultimately helped Ms. S end her life in Vancouver. 

"It was really a privilege, and it was an honour that she trusted me with this," said Dr. W.

"Usually, somebody end-stage ALS, a doctor feels so helpless. All you can do is sedate. 

"Here, she wanted to have an assisted death, and we could do it. I could do it. I could actually help her."

Dr. W said guidelines from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia helped her navigate the process, but that it was challenging to acquire the necessary medications because pharmacists in the province have not received similar directions from their organizing bodies.

Dr. W said she has only received positive feedback and hopes to see other physicians step forward as willing to provide this service. 

"This woman had to travel from one province to another, and that's terrible," she said.

"She should have been able to have this service in her own home," she said. 

While Ms. V was not able to speak to the total cost of the process, she acknowledged that it was cumbersome and what many would consider prohibitively expensive. 

Clarifications

  • Earlier versions of this story identified one of Ms. S's best friends and one of the doctors that helped Ms. S end her life in Vancouver. These names have been changed to Ms. V and Dr. W due to a court-ordered publication ban. For the same reason, comments have been turned off on this story.
    Mar 03, 2016 8:52 AM MT