Meeting with Alberta health minister disappoints family of assisted-dying patient Doreen Nowicki

The family of a terminally ill woman forced by a Covenant Health religious policy to have her assisted-dying assessment on an Edmonton sidewalk met with Alberta health minister.

'I don’t feel like anything is going to come out of it,' daughter Michele Emmanuel says

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman speaks at a news conference about a new patient protection bill introduced Tuesday. (CBC)

The family of a terminally ill woman forced by a Covenant Health religious policy to have her assisted-dying assessment on an Edmonton sidewalk says they don't feel confident that there will be any change to that policy.

"I don't feel like anything is going to come out of it," Doreen Nowicki's daughter, Michele Emmanuel, said Friday after meeting with Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman on Thursday night.

The family met with Hoffman, at her request, for about an hour after CBC News revealed last week the story of how Covenant treated Nowicki, a 66-year-old ALS patient.

In May 2017, Nowicki was a palliative care patient at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre, a Covenant Health facility. Her disease had progressed to the point she could no longer walk or speak. She decided to pursue a medically assisted death.

As she pursued a dignified end to her life, Doreen Nowicki had to be transported to a facility she didn't know, because her continuing care centre, operated by Covenant Health, refuses to facilitate medically assisted deaths.

Covenant Health, Alberta's publicly funded Catholic health provider, says medical assistance in dying (MAID) runs contrary to its faith. By policy, the organization refuses to facilitate medically assisted death and the provincial government, under Hoffman, has exempted Covenant Health from having to provide those services.

For more than a week, Hoffman has repeatedly refused to directly answer questions on Covenant Health's policy, which ethics and legal experts say is inhumane and infringes on patients' rights.

'We told our story'

But Emmanuel said her family came away from the meeting with the sense Hoffman was not committed to forcing Covenant to change the policy, which they say is cruel.

"We told our story. She listened," Emmanuel said. "But we didn't feel confident that anything would be changed."

She said Hoffman appeared to be sympathetic, telling the family she would raise the issue with former premier Ed Stelmach, the current chair of the Covenant Health board. But the minister would not give any "specific response" to questions about what, if anything, she planned to do.

Covenant has said it is reviewing the language in its policy "related to the use of the term 'exceptional' in identifying patients who may require onsite MAID assessments.

"The interpretation of that word may not have been what was intended in some cases and we are reviewing to ensure improved clarity going forward," it said in a statement.

In an interview late Friday, Hoffman told CBC News she will be monitoring that review, "and if I am not happy with the way that they have amended their policy, I will enact my own."

She did not commit to a further review by her ministry on patients' access to assisted dying services in religious facilities, including the procedures themselves.

Second patient forced onto street

On Friday, CBC News revealed another patient had to leave a Covenant Health facility to access MAID services.

When Bob Hergott, a 72-year-old ALS patient, sought a medically assisted death in 2016, he was effectively paralyzed; he could only communicate by typing on a tablet with one functioning finger.

Hergott's best friend of 25 years, Verna Young, said Covenant told her friend he could not access any assisted-dying services on its property. Using one finger to steer his motorized wheelchair, Hergott had to leave the hospital and cross the street to a bus shelter so he could sign his form requesting an assisted death.

Young said the experience clearly upset Hergott, who eventually had to leave St. Joseph's Hospital, where he had lived for five years, for the assisted dying procedure that ended his life.

She said Hergott took a taxi to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, an Alberta Health Services facility.

Covenant declined an interview request about Hergott's care. In a statement, the health provider said Hergott, who was the first Covenant patient to request MAID, regularly left the hospital for medical appointments and social activities. Covenant said his care team determined he could safely go off-site to access MAID services.

'This is shameful'

While Covenant has publicly apologized for its treatment of Nowicki, her family said the Catholic health provider has yet to privately apologize. Covenant continues to defend its MAID policy.

In a news release issued Friday, Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann urged Hoffman to enforce a patient's right to not only assessments but also to medically assisted deaths at Alberta's religious-based health facilities.

"(Covenant) will not even allow them to fill out paperwork at their facilities," the Liberal release said. "This is shameful. This is also illegal."

Nowicki's family still hopes that, by speaking publicly, it will force change that ensures no other patient has to endure what she did.

"I told (Hoffman) that we weren't doing this for any profit or fame or fortune," Nowicki's husband Terry said. "I said, 'We're doing this so nobody else will go through the same thing that we went through.' "

Added Nowicki: "And I believe she said that it shouldn't happen again, and she was sorry that it had happened. And that was the end of it."

If someone you know has had a similar experience, or you have information about this story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.