Edmonton

Woman plans death on her own terms despite Alberta Bishops' opposition

During the last moments of her life, Barb Gibson-Clifford will drink a large glass of her husband’s delicious wine. It will help wash down the medication that will put her into a final, peaceful sleep.

A Sherwood Park woman suffering from cancer says church needs to 'come into the modern era.'

Barb Gibson-Clifford lies on her bed in her home in Sherwood Park. Having suffered from cancer for more than 10 years, she said she wants to die at home on her own terms. (CBC)

During the last moments of her life, Barb Gibson-Clifford will drink a large glass of her husband's delicious wine. It will help wash down the medication that will put her into a final, peaceful sleep.

Lying on her bed with her cat, Shadow, is a place of comfort for her. This is where she wants to die without pain, and on her own terms.

It's something the Sherwood Park woman thinks about often after having had 11 cancer-related surgeries over the past 10 years.

"Dying a peaceful, dignified death is part of my healthcare plan and I feel very strongly that should be everyone's option," Gibson-Clifford said. "The thought of being in a situation where the disease is out of control, there's nothing that can be done, that I'm going to be condemned to a painful death loaded with drugs, terminal sedation... that really scares me."

In February 2015, the Supreme Court ruled the century-old law prohibiting physician-assisted death violated Canadians' charter rights. The court gave the federal government a year to come up with new legislation to deal with the issue. The government has since asked for an extension, and that legislation is now expected in June.

I can't see that I would change my mind.- Barb Gibson-Clifford

On Thursday, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said hospitals operated by Covenant Health would not offer physician assisted death.

In a statement, Alberta's Catholic bishops said safeguards in jurisdictions that already allow assisted-death do not work and imperil vulnerable people, such as the elderly or people with mental and physical disabilities.

Gibson-Clifford has had her surgeries at Covenant Health hospitals. This week, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said Covenant Health hospitals will not offer physician assisted death. (CBC)

Gibson-Clifford has had her surgeries at a Covenant Health Hospital. She is also a member of the United Church of Canada, and said the bishops' view on assisted death points to a need for "reassessment" of the topic within the Catholic church.

"It's not right to force anyone's beliefs on anyone else," she said. "Give them the information and allow them to make up their own mind. It has to be between you and your creator."

Gibson-Clifford has a rare cancer called leiomyosarcoma. Over the past 10 years, she's had numerous surgeries, including a hysterectomy, and the removal of a 14 cm cancerous mass from her abdomen. She's currently in Stage 4 of the disease and knows her tumours will return.

'It's something that she believes in pretty hard'

She has been open with her husband, Brian Clifford, of her wishes to be in control of her final moments.

He said he supports her decision to die on her own terms, and will be there to comfort her when she goes.

"It's something that she believes in pretty hard," he said. "Having seen people go through a lot of pain and agony before an actual death happens … I'm totally in favour of the choice, that a person should be able to make that choice. I don't think there's anything wrong about it."

"I think that's the least we all deserve as human beings, is that dignity of it."

Gibson-Clifford is healthy, for now, but worries her condition could change rapidly before June, when the government releases new legislation on physician-assisted death.

Since she's had her previous surgeries at a Covenant Health hospital, she said she hopes they have a plan in place to transfer patients to facilities that will offer the service of physician-assisted death.

"I think it's time to come into the modern era. Things have changed," she said. "If… the individual comes down to saying this is what I want, then I think the individual's right needs to be respected."

"I can't see that I would change my mind."

Brian Clifford said he supports his wife's desire to choose when she dies. (CBC)

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