Assisted Dying in Canada: One Woman’s Story

Kathy Wardle (left) with her sister Leslie Forrester.

The freedom to decide the manner of your own death has become a social and political hot button. Here, a filmmaker documents Kathy’s Choice.

The freedom to decide the manner of your own death has become a social and political hot button.

One day, in the early months of 2015, Kathy Wardle, 73, called Father David Neelands at Toronto’s St. James Cemetery and Crematorium to make arrangements for a funeral. When Neelands inquired about the identity of the deceased, Kathy replied bluntly – the funeral was her own. She even knew the exact date: April 15, 2015.

How she could pinpoint the date proved a trickier question – a reveal clouded by both the laws of Canada and those that govern one’s own morality. In a way, it’s a question Kathy herself struggled with for years. How could she ensure her own death? Hanging herself? Jumping off a bridge? Those were ugly ways to go, made even uglier for the ones who’d find her. Starvation was out: the IV for her pain medication would provide enough liquid to keep her alive. While there was no easy answer, to understand how Kathy entertained such thoughts, you’d have to understand the person Kathy used to be.

“She liked fast cars,” Leslie Forrester, Kathy’s younger sister, recalls. “She taught phys. ed. for a period of time. She was just a really avid skier and she loved to sail.”

Kathy Wardle – world traveller, sports enthusiast, partygoer – lived life at her own pace until 2006 when, after an osteoarthritis diagnosis, she underwent a hip replacement. Two years later, she had her knee replaced, too. “And you could see her, after each one of the surgeries, just slowing down,” John Moutsatsos-Thornton, filmmaker, vice-president of original programming and operations at ZoomerMedia and a friend of Kathy’s for more than 20 years, remembers.

Kathy began suffering excruciating pain and doctors discovered “severe disc degeneration” in her lower vertebrae. Spinal fusion surgery, which involves inserting rods and screws to secure the spine, failed to alleviate her suffering. In 2013, a second spinal fusion surgery didn’t help. Eventually, Kathy’s life was reduced to spending 90 per cent of each day in bed, popping medications to barely manage the waves of pain rippling through her body. She tried everything from acupuncture and meditation to courses in pain control. None worked.

“Finally, she began to say if this next thing doesn’t work, that’s it; I can’t live,” Forrester says. “That’s when I did most of my grieving.”

Next: The Superior Court of Canada

Kathy2-May2016
Kathy striking a pose in happier times.

Last year, the Superior Court of Canada struck a lethal blow, so to speak, to the nation’s ban on physician-assisted suicide. But while the federal government debates how to shape assisted-dying laws moving forward, individual provinces are left to decide whether or not those who wish to die are eligible. So far, only one person – a Calgary woman suffering from ALS – has legally undergone the procedure, which took place in Vancouver.

For Kathy, waiting to see if the politics played out in her favour wasn’t an option. Instead, she set her sights on Switzerland and an assisted dying organization called Dignitas. The application process involved strict vetting of Kathy’s medical history and desire to die. In addition, aiding or abetting someone in taking their own life is illegal in Canada, which meant Kathy had to keep her decision secret for fear of placing loved ones in a difficult legal position. She did, however, inform Thornton and allowed him to film her final weeks for a documentary called My Life – My Choice: Dying with Dignity, which aired on VisionTV (a ZoomerMedia property) in March and can be viewed at www.visiontv.ca/shows/mylife.

“It was hard to see somebody so vibrant diminished so much,” Thornton says. “I was with her [filming the documentary] … for eight or nine hours every single day for three weeks. It was like ‘Wow, you really don’t have much of a life.'”

Kathy believed Dignitas would provide a graceful death but regretted having to go to such lengths. “It just seems criminal,” she says in the documentary, “that I have to go kind of in secret all the way to Switzerland to accomplish something that should be easily available to me as a Canadian citizen. It was available to my dog.”
Forrester recalls the weeks leading up to the trip, which, she notes, contained a few lighthearted moments. “Kathy had this sort of funereal sense of humour. One of [our jokes] was ‘Why didn’t you buy a large jar of peanut butter?’ And then we looked at each other and went, ‘Oh, yeah, we might not need it.'”

Next: She spent a private moment with each of her guests

With her mind at peace and her affairs in order, Forrester, Thornton and another close friend accompanied Kathy to Switzerland. Once there, the foursome enjoyed some good meals, conversation, beautiful scenery and even a boat cruise. Eventually, a sense of finality set in – the last meals, the last time Kathy would see the mountains, even choosing the outfit she’d die in. On the day of the procedure, Kathy drank the first of two required cocktails, which helps calm the patient. Then she spent a private moment with each of her guests – a walk, kind words, an exchange of “I love yous” – before preparing for the second drink, which would put her into a deep sleep and eventually end her life. In a bed, surrounded by loved ones, Kathy took the second drink. She lay peacefully breathing for quite some time until everyone left the room. Forrester believes, “that [dying] people think they want you close but … the final moments have to be by themselves.”

For Thornton, who’d witnessed his mother’s painful death a year earlier, Kathy’s experience proved something of a revelation. “Her death was so peaceful and so calm that, I don’t know if I can say it took the fear of death away, but it certainly helped. It wasn’t as traumatic an experience.”

“[Kathy] wanted every Canadian to be able to have a choice,” Forrester adds. “So, regardless of what people’s beliefs are, they may be completely opposed to the whole concept, but the law should enshrine that choice.”

A month after her passing, at Kathy’s memorial service, guests gathered to watch a pre-recorded video in which she explains why she couldn’t inform them of her decision, expresses her hope for political change around assisted dying in Canada and extends her love. In true Kathy fashion, she implores them to enjoy the party.

“Today should be a day of happiness,” she declares. “So drink up. I love you all.”

Before her passing, Kathy asked Thornton if he and his partner wanted to purchase her beloved Cabbagetown home. “Kathy wanted the house to go to somebody who she knew,” he says of the house she lived in for nearly four decades. “We have a good feeling in the house and whenever we have a party, we do a toast to Kathy. She’s very much part of our life that continues in that house.”

“I’ll be here in spirit,” Kathy had told him. “This place is great for dinner parties.”

A version of this article appeared in our May 2016 issue with the headline, “Kathy’s Choice,” p.76-77.