Judy Lytton remembers the medicinal stench, the glaring lights, the cold, hard metal against her back as she was forced into the operating room.

She was only 15 when she was sterilized as part of Alberta's eugenics program.

"I remember everything. It's horrible to say, but I was one of the only people that knew that I was being sterilized," said Lytton, who says the pain and the shame of the moment are still raw, decades later.

"I knew it and I was mad, and I said to the doctor on the operating table, 'You will be accountable for this one day. You will be accountable for this.' "

Lytton held true on that promise, but says her fight for compensation would never have been possible had it not been for Leilani Muir.

Muir, who legally changed her name to O'Malley to let go of her past, died Monday night at the age of 71.

She is credited as the woman who opened the door to compensation for hundreds of victims of Alberta's eugenics program.

Leilani Muir

Leilani Muir, who legally changed her name to O'Malley to let go of her past, successfully sued the province in 1995 after being sterilized due to a failed IQ test. (CBC Edmonton )

Unwanted and abused as a child, O'Malley was institutionalized at the age of 11. Two years later, she failed an IQ test and her sterilization was approved by the government.

She didn't find out what had happened until her 20s. She said officials told her at the time that she was having her appendix removed.

In 1995, she successfully sued the Alberta government, and was awarded $1 million in damages in the landmark case.

"She did something I couldn't do," Lytton said. "I couldn't set the precedent, I couldn't do that. She did that. She did it for so many of us."

O'Malley remained haunted by her past. 

"Her heart was broken in so many ways, and broken until the end," Lytton said in an interview on CBC Radio.

'School For Mental Defectives'

Both Lytton and O'Malley spent their childhoods as wards of the state.

Both were 11 when they met and became friends during their time at the Provincial Training School For Mental Defectives, now known as the Michener Centre.

Over the years, through marriages and careers, they drifted apart, but were reunited during O'Malley's court case.

"When I saw her at trial, she looked exactly the same. She hadn't changed at all. I knew her right on the spot and we became friends all over again," Lytton said.

"I was in the courtroom with her every day and stood behind her."

And although it was a painful childhood that brought them together, it was friendship that kept the two women close, decades after they escaped their institutional lives.

Lytton said O'Malley remained a vocal advocate until the end, but enjoyed spending her free time with family, friends and her beloved dog Peggy-Sue. 

"She was a good auctioneer, she was a real card shark. I bet if she went to Vegas she would have been able to beat them down and make it rich," Lytton said.

"She was tough as hell. If she said she was going to do something, you better get out of her way, 'cause she was going to do it.

"It meant a lot to us to be vindicated. I can't thank her enough."