'For me every breath is work': Why Noreen Campbell chose assisted dying

Noreen Campbell is among the first Canadians to be approved for a medically-assisted death. She tells the CBC's Brian Goldman how she came to her life-ending decision.
'For me every breath is work. I have air hunger,' Noreen Campbell tells CBC's Dr. Brian Goldman. Noreen suffered from an agressive form of oral cancer before developing COPD. She died by assisted death, Jan. 12. (Kelly Nakatsuka)

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Noreen Campbell was 71-years-old when she passed away on Jan. 12, 2016,  at a time of her choosing —  in a medically-assisted death.

Noreen was among the first in Canada to be approved for a medically-assisted death. She submitted her application the very next day after the federal government legalized it last year. 

Noreen suffered from an aggressive form of oral cancer before developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Just before her death, Noreen asked CBC's White Coat Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman if he would like to interview her about her decision.  

 I think I can do pain but I sure can't do suffocating.'- Noreen Campbell

Dr. Goldman spoke with Noreen one week before she died.

"Three years ago I would have never dreamt I would be advocating for dying with dignity but I had a toothache that turned out to be cancer," Noreen explained.

Noreen worked as an educator on oral cancer and it never occurred to her she would have this cancer because she didn't smoke.

After having surgery to eliminate the uncontrollable pain, Noreen starting looking into dying. 

"I told my doctor when I found out this end stage lung progress, I said, 'Look I'm terrified. I think I can do pain but I sure can't do suffocating.'"

Because Noreen wasn't just dealing with cancer but COPD, she would have died from respiratory failure.

... Sometimes I will feel like it's my last breath.- Noreen Campbell

She explained to Dr. Goldman how hard it was for her to breathe through her trachea.

"The equivalent to understand how I move air is if you have a McDonald's large straw and you put it in your mouth and hold your nose, see how long you can breathe."

"For me every breath is work. I have air hunger so sometimes I will feel like it's my last breath."

Dr. Goldman explained that air hunger is respiratory distress in which a person gasps for air and has the constant feeling they are not getting enough air in.

When it comes to the laws of assisted dying and consent, Noreen told Dr. Goldman she worries that if she had a stroke her right to assisted dying would be taken away, even if her physical condition, or mental condition had not changed.

"I believe if Canada wants to be a leader in thinking ahead, we should have the right to consent given a change in our physical status," Noreen said..

"I can go pay taxes, vote, why can't I determine this?"

"If we had a perfect world, we would have advanced consent."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.