No Alberta doctor available for woman granted right to die

When Ms. S. decided she wanted to end her life, her friend said she could not find an Alberta doctor willing to help so she had to turn to physicians in B.C.
The case of Ms. S. is raising questions about whether Alberta is ready to help people who want to end their lives with a doctor's help. (The Canadian Press)

When Ms. S. decided she wanted to end her life, she could not find an Alberta doctor willing to help, her friend says. 

The Calgary woman died this week in Vancouver with the help of two British Columbia physicians, after an Alberta judge granted her a legal exemption, which is currently allowed under the law.   

Ms. V. accompanied her long-time friend to Vancouver and was with her when she died.  

"Certainly it would have been a lot easier to have travelled in Calgary," she said. "Because every movement was painful for her."

Ms. V. said her friend faced many challenges beyond her medical condition.

"Try and find a physician who's willing to do this in Calgary," she said. "Try and find even a lawyer who was willing to take on the case. That was another obstacle."

University of Calgary law professor Juliet Guichon wondered why Ms. S. could not get a doctor's help in Alberta.

"Clearly she's somebody who is suffering and it's a terrible shame that we in Alberta have increased that suffering by not being able to help her here," she said. 

"I think that we failed an Albertan in helping her to have access to what the Supreme Court of Canada has decided in a unanimous decision is a lawful health service."

The Supreme Court decision on physician-assisted suicide allowing an application for an individual exemption was delivered Jan.15 and became effective Feb. 6. 

Guichon thought the province should have been ready, "because it was evident in the judgement that there ought to have been provision for people who would go to court".

Ms. V. said her friend wrote Health Minister Sarah Hoffman and Alberta Health Services looking for assistance with finding a doctor, but to no avail.

Retired doctor David Amies lives in Lethbridge.  He is on the Physicians Advisory Council of Dying with Dignity and doesn't think Alberta is prepared to deal with physician-assisted death.

"I don't know yet of any doctors or any organizations here in Alberta," he said. "Whether they will in the future or not, I really don't know".  

Amies is surprised legal ground was broken in this province.  

"I would have thought that Alberta might be the last province and it turns out to be the first," he said.

The legal precedent has been set, but it's unclear if Alberta will be better prepared if another exemption is granted.

"If there's a second patient in Alberta who wishes to die this way," Guichon asked, "what are we going to do for that person?"  

Guichon calls it a social justice issue and worries not everyone would have the financial means to apply for an exemption.  

Exemption for those who can afford it 

Ms. S's friend agrees.  

"If you have $10,000 or $15,000, then maybe you can go ahead with this procedure of seeking an exemption," Ms. V. said. "And I think we need to have a process that's accessible to everyone".  

In an email to CBC, Tim Wilson, press secretary to Health Minister Sarah Hoffman, said his department would fully co-operate with the terms of any court order granting an exemption. 

"Until June 6, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruling comes into effect, we are prepared to respond to court orders on a case-by-case basis," Wilson wrote. 

The provincial government launched its own consultation on Monday, Wilson added. 

"We know these are gut-wrenching and difficult situations, and we need to find a solution that reflects the values and compassion of Albertans," he wrote. "The consultation which we just launched on Monday will help us do this".

On its website, Alberta Health Services said it's working with its partners "to develop a physician-assisted death policy as well as information resources for physicians, staff, and, patients and families".

The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons will wrap up its second round of public consultation on the issue March 7. The college council plans to set policy in May.  

The Court of Queen's Bench confirmed there are no pending applications before them right now. But law professor Guichon thinks the floodgates could open.

"It's possible that people have been waiting for Feb. 6, 2016 so there might be  — I hate to use this word — but there might be a backlog of people who have been waiting".