White Coat, Black Art

A year after MAID, a husband talks about being the spouse left behind

Clifford Campbell's wife, Noreen, was among the first to be approved for and to receive medical assistance in dying (MAID). "I didn't want her to go, but I understood," he says of what it's like to be the witness to suffering, party to assisted death, and the spouse left behind.
Clifford and Noreen Campbell, at their home in Saanich, BC. Noreen had a medically assisted death in January 2017. (Courtesy of the Campbell family)

By Dr. Brian Goldman

Just over a year ago, I spoke to Noreen Campbell, who was among the first Canadians to be approved for medical assistance in dying (MAID). 

Noreen, a nurse who continued to teach and write articles even after becoming ill, had an aggressive form of oral cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and felt that MAID should be available to Canadians. When I spoke to her then we focused on her last wishes.

Now a year after her death, we wanted to revisit the story, through the eyes of Clifford Campbell, Noreen's husband, someone I've thought about a lot in the past year. 

As more and more Canadians access MAID, the ranks of surviving spouses are swelling. They are often the forgotten ones; witness to suffering, party to assisted death and in the end, grieving soul mate. 

Wedding photo of Clifford and Noreen Campbell from 1969. They were married 48 years. (Courtesy of the Campbell family)

But, they have a story to tell from an important perspective.

Here is an abbreviated version of my interview with Clifford Campbell. 

What did you have for breakfast? (We ask this question to get a level on our guest's voice)

I had my regular porridge...The only thing I have different now is before,when Noreen was there, I don't have anyone to share my banana with. So I buy small bananas. 

How long were you married?

Forty-eight years, and we were pretty much together another two years before that....So it was almost 50 years. 

What was Noreen like?

She was a very vigorous vital person. Nursing wasn't all her life. Her second love was horses and her family. She was a voracious reader, I'm not [a reader], but I took full advantage of the reading she did...It helped me to understand the world as she did. 

Noreen loved her horses. She died in her favourite chair in the sun room of their home, with a view of the barn where her beloved horse, Dasha. (CBC)

In the last year before her death, how hard was it for Noreen to get through her day? 

Very difficult. [Mornings] were the worst times for her to get her lungs cleared of the congestion. She would cough sometimes for an hour, sometimes even longer than that. It was difficult to watch her doing that and not being able to help. 

When did [MAID] first come up?

We had a small hobby farm...The conversation would often come up that we treat our animals better than we treat ourselves in that respect, so it wasn't a surprise. It was something we talked about as a couple, and our daughters were often involved as well. That's a message I'd like to bring to people. How important it is to talk among the family. Having these discussions beforehand is so important. 

Noreen was approved for an assisted death the day after the Bill C-14 was passed, on June 17, 2016. Clifford said Noreen was sceptical she'd meet the criteria, but said she emerged from her doctor's office on June 18, 2016 looking like "she'd just won a prize." 
Noreen Campbell's goodbye message to Canadians.

How about your feelings [on that day]? 

I had very mixed feelings because I was happy for her, I could see how happy she was... I think we never want to see a loved one depart in that way. I knew that Noreen so strongly wanted this, I was determined to support her with that. But  I didn't want it. I frequently told her I didn't want her to go, but I understood and I was willing to let her go if that's what she needed and that's what she wanted. 

On Boxing Day in December, 2016, Noreen chose a date for her death: January 12, 2017. 

Did it affect you knowing this date was out there? 

Certainly it did... But, I had a long time to prepare for it. I knew it was coming. I thought my job then was to support her and to carry through.

Noreen died in her favourite chair in the sun room of their home, with a view  of the barn where her beloved horse, Dasha was kept. It was a sunny day, and she was surrounded by family. Clifford told us he found the following message on her computer after she died:

This is my day, I was able to watch my grandchildren play hockey. 

We have had a string of celebrations. Tears, sure, but so much laughter. 

Thank you Canadians, for making it possible for having a peaceful death and sparing my family from witnessing a death with fear and suffering. We live in good times. As long as we can continue to work for each other, 


Noreen Campbell 

Clifford also revealed that Noreen had arranged to have her MAID procedure recorded on video, so it could be used to train health professionals. 

Noreen's death was actually an extension of her training. She actually had the procedure filmed as a training process for doctors that will be performing this in the future... It was not the doctor's request, it was Noreen's request that this be done. 

"That's a message I'd like to bring to people. How important it is to talk among the family. Having these discussions beforehand is so important," says Clifford of the need to include family in discussions about MAID. (Courtesy of the Campbell family)

How much of an obligation do you feel to carry on her work? 

I feel very obligated. I'm not the communicator Noreen was so I will probably won't be as functional as she was in that respect... I'm very much in favour of advance directives, maybe even in a selfish way because I have atrial fibrillation (a condition that predisposes older patients to strokes — a risk that can be mitigated with blood thinners). It's quite likely I'll die from a stroke or heart attack, and possibly be disabled... I would not want to carry on or have my family burdened. I hope I will be able to choose that course if that is my end. 

As Noreen's partner, did you feel there was outside support for someone in your unique circumstances? 

Not really and I'm hoping I can do something about that. I've actually recently agreed to take part in a panel discussion online with family members who've experienced assisted death. 

"She never stopped teaching," says Noreen's husband, Clifford. "Noreen's death was actually an extension of her training." (Kelly Nakatsuka )

What advice would your offer someone who has a spouse considering MAID? 

Talk with them as openly and frequently as you can about this. Don't try to sweep it under the carpet. Talk to other family members about it because it's so important to get those family members onside to support that person. 

Noreen taught nurses as an educator, she taught me, she taught Canadians. What did Noreen teach you?

She taught me a lot about life. How to be a husband, how to be a father. How to look after horses! 

What did she teach you about facing death?

I guess she taught me [that facing death] is part of life. But it doesn't have to be the morbid thing we often think of. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.