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Doctors plead ignorance about physician-assisted death, says Winnipeg woman

A Winnipeg woman living with emphysema says both her own physicians and their governing body refuse to give her information about physician-assisted death.

Winnipeg woman claims only advice from physician; slashing wrists would be "too messy"

Physician-assisted death is currently only accessible through a court exemption. (CBC)
A Winnipeg woman living with emphysema says both her own physicians and their governing body refuse to give her information about physician-assisted death.

This despite the fact that Manitoba Justice alerted physicians in February to prepare for requests like hers.

"It's like no one wants me to know anything about [physician-assisted death]," said Ellen, not her real name. "I finally asked my doctor, 'What am I supposed to do? Slit my wrists?' and she said, 'No, that would be too messy.'"

'It's like no one wants me to know anything about it"- "Ellen," a Winnipeg woman seeking physician-assisted death

The 58-year-old married mother of two began to consider a physician-assisted death once she learned she has emphysema, and what could be in store for her.

A lot of suffering

"It's not a pleasant death. There is a lot of suffering and it can be long....it's a slow suffocation," Ellen said. " And I don't want to choke to death."

Physician-assisted death is still not legal in Manitoba; it won't be law until federal legislation is drafted this June. But until then, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that persons meeting certain requirements can apply for a court exemption, which would legally allow them to access the assisted death before that.

That's why in February, the Winnipeg woman approached both her physician and her pulmonologist. Neither of them, she said, claimed to know anything about a court exemption or the protocols being established for physician-assisted death.

 "So I called the College of Physicians and Surgeons," she said. "And they had no clue."

But in fact, they did.

Doctors get "memo" on PAD

Late January, Manitoba Justice sent a memo to the College, explaining the interim exemptions that would allow the physician-assisted deaths, referred to as PADs, prior to the forthcoming June legislation.

The memo, which was distributed to all the College's members, states: "The exemption would then permit the physician to assist with dying and would not be a breach of the law."

The memo then goes on to give physicians the heads-up that they'd best be prepared for requests like Ellen's: "Thus, we can anticipate that in Manitoba we may have requests beginning in early February."

It also spells out what it calls the "minimum requirements" of all physicians faced with a patient who, like Ellen, asks about a physician-assisted death.

First, they can refuse to provide information. They can even refuse to refer the patient to a physician who will support it.

But if that's the case, they must -- at the very least -- tell the patient they don't believe in it, and then as soon as possible, refer the patient to someone or some resource who will give them the answers they're seeking.

Yet Ellen says neither her physicians nor the College did any of this.

"My doctor told me I wasn't handling my illness very well," she said, pointing to her forehead. "As if I were mentally ill." 

The CBC called the physician for comment, but at the time of publication, was still waiting for a response.

Ellen now says if the June legislation doesn't provide more clarity, she will go to Switzerland to die by assisted suicide, where it is legally offered to foreigners.

CBC Producer Donna Carreiro can be reached at donna.carreiro@cbc.ca.