Accent: Sudbury woman shares why she sought medically assisted death: 'Quality of life for me is so low going on with life feels like a torture I can’t endure any longer'
Georgie Hanson had been advocating for her own death for 20 years.
In 1999, she traveled to the Netherlands to seek medical assistance in dying (known as MAID). She spent three months in the country and was finally approved. But there is a mandatory waiting period and just days before she was set to pass, her visa and ticket expired and she was forced to leave the country.
While Hanson wished to die, she did not stop living. She published a novel, Distant Thunder, in 2004 (she published her first novel in 1995) and she founded a couple of breast cancer survivor support groups. Hanson liked to help others.
Medically-assisted death has been legal in Canada since 2016. When Hanson found out it was an option, she registered immediately. She was initially rejected as a candidate in May, but reapplied in June and on Aug 10, Hanson, 61, got her wish.
She died peacefully in her own home, with her daughter Carly by her side.
“The legacy I want to leave behind is one of compassion and caring for my fellow human beings, and to do it in a way that makes a difference,” Hanson told The Star during an interview on July 26.
Carly was a late addition to Hanson’s bedside. Initially, she thought it would just be the doctor who administered the medications, her home care worker and her friend, Alexis (whom Hanson referred to as an adopted-by-heart daughter).
Due to illness, Hanson said her circle was small (although she was very active on Facebook and tributes poured in during the days afterward).
Hanson had a litany of illnesses.
It was confirmed she had colon cancer during the months before her passing. She watched her father die of cancer and said it was brutal.
On a good day, Hanson’s pain was at seven. On a bad day, it hit 10 two or three times per day. She knew death would be ugly.
“Dying of cancer isn’t pretty,” she said. “It’s really, really painful. It takes a psychological toll, as well. I don’t want to die a prolonged, ugly death in hospice or alone here in my apartment. I want a dignified, peaceful death and MAID offers that.”
She had survived breast cancer twice and uterine cancer once. She had previously endured several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, and knew what to expect – “that’s not the way I want to go,” she said.
She had Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome; asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; diabetes; high blood pressure; and had survived two heart attacks.
“I have been unable to eat solids for the past eight years, but over the past 12 days I have only managed a quarter bottle of Glucerna daily; it increases my pain exponentially,” she said about two weeks before her passing.
On top of all her other illnesses and conditions, Hanson also suffered from progressively worsening degenerative disk disease, problems with her sciatic nerve and severe osteoarthritis, the result of a farming accident in which she was attacked and thrown by an 800-pound cow. She had used an electric wheelchair since 2004.
“She slammed me between a metal fence and a metal gate three times and then flipped me up in the air so that I landed on my belt upside down between the gate and the fence, and then she did it again,” she recalled. “I was in the hospital for 14 months in agony. I had a broken back, a shattered pelvis, broken bones galore, my rib cage was flailed, which means almost every rib was broken.”
What finally helped convince her doctors to allow her to proceed with MAID was her drastic and unexplained weight loss. In just seven months, Hanson lost 98.2 kg, about 216 pounds. Hanson shared an email she received from one of her physicians, in which it is confirmed she was a candidate for MAID.
“I did mull over your case last evening and I believe that your natural death is foreseeable due to your chronic digestive issues and precipitous weight loss. None of the other criteria are in any doubt. Whether or not you also have cancer is irrelevant. I will get in touch with Julie Campbell to try to find a second assessor as required by law before we can proceed. You’ve passed the first gate.”
There are several criteria to which those seeking MAID must adhere. Documents outlining MAID, available online, indicate patients must have a “grievous and irremediable medical condition,” which means they have “a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability” and are in an “advanced state of irreversible decline in capability.” Natural death must be reasonably foreseeable.
From January to Oct. 31, 2018, more than 2,600 people in Canada chose a medically-assisted death. Since the legislation was enacted, 6,749 people in the country have opted in.
The government of Canada indicates that last year, 42 per cent of MAID-related deaths occurred in the patient’s home, while 44 per cent occurred in hospital. Five per cent of people were in long-term care facilities or nursing homes. Not surprisingly, cancer accounts for a robust majority – 64 per cent – of MAID cases.
“We estimate that for the first 10 months of 2018, MAID has accounted for approximately 1.12 per cent of the estimated total deaths in Canada during this reporting period,” the Canadian government indicates.
Hanson was a strong woman and a survivor, but she knew there would be no end to her pain.
“I cry daily from the excruciating pain, and I want to be released from my physical and psychological torture,” she said.
She was ready to go.
“My stomach looks eight months pregnant and it feels like a cheese grater is attacking my organs all day and night,” she wrote in July when she was seeking help from North East Local Health Integration Network. “Pain relievers aren’t working anymore. I want no investigative or invasive tests to find out what is wrong with my abdomen. I do not want or desire to prolong my suffering. I know one does not need to be terminally ill in order to qualify for euthanasia or assisted suicide, only hopelessly ill. And I have no hope of ever getting better, only progressively worse. It has been 30 years of escalating suffering and pain. And I’ve been wishing for assisted euthanasia since 1999.”
Hanson said to the LHIN the emotional toll illness had taken on her had been unbearable.
“I’ve been unable to walk, unable to bathe, wash hair, change bedding, cook, eat anything other than Ensure for the past eight years; I sleep in one- to two-hour spurts, averaging four to six hours every 24 hours. Pain prevents sleep,” she wrote. “Quality of life for me is so low going on with life feels like a torture I can’t endure any longer. There is no family or friends due to being socially isolated, in a wheelchair, can’t grocery shop, can’t take out garbage or do my own laundry for the past three years I’ve been completely housebound, except for doctors’ appointments.”
She said she also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and endured four to eight attacks per week. Hanson’s life was one of struggle and challenge. When she was in her mid-20s and still a young wife and mother, her husband committed suicide in front of her. She lost contact with her siblings and children for years.
She said yes, of course, she had thought about suicide, but she did not want to take a chance it would be unsuccessful.
“There’s no guarantee that it’s going to work,” she said. “Or that it’s not going to destroy other organs in your body and then you end up in worse condition. The criteria of MAID is you must be able to be cognitively aware of your circumstances and what you’re asking for.”
Hanson was also uncomfortable with the idea of hospice care.
“It’s a slow way of still dying the same death you’re going to die at home,” she said. “It’s in a foreign environment with foreign people. I want to be surrounded by those that I love, who are my adopted family now.”
On July 26, Hanson said she was eagerly anticipating her departure. She had accomplished everything she wanted to get done. There were no loose strings.
“I know there’s something on the other side; I’m convinced there’s no pain there,” she said. “I want to go. I don’t want to be left here suffering. I am ready to go.”
But she was also contemplative during her final weeks.
“I’m asking myself things I’ve never thought of very hard – like what is the purpose of my life, what did I do with it, what am I leaving behind,” she told me later. “I look out my window and wonder how those walking down the street view life and death, and what they’d do in my shoes, and the questions they’d ask themselves if they knew the day and hour of their death.”
Hanson told The Star that during her last days, she had done some healing. She admitted she had a difficult relationship with her children and said Carly was the last person she expected to see at her bedside. But it felt wonderful and peaceful to know her daughter would be holding her hand. In fact, Hanson bought journals for Carly and her other children to use as a form of healing.
“This period that I’ve been going through helped me open my emotional backpack of unresolved anger, unforgiven issues, things I had packed around my whole life, and helped me open that bag and take a close look at each one and make amends where I could,” she said.
Hanson explained a few days prior to her passing how it would unfold. Her loved ones would gather at her side and they would share any final words. She would nod her head and be given five times the normal amount of anesthetic to put her into a comatose state. Five to 10 minutes later, she would be given drugs to stop her heart and breathing. It would be a peaceful, calm death, she said.
“I’m not saying I’m without fear at all, but I am mostly without fear. I feel very comfortable and at peace,” Hanson said. “It’s a death of dignity and it’s a death of peace. Those who’ve been robbed of that opportunity, who wished they had had this available to them, I feel sorry for them.”
Hanson, an author of several books, was organized and ready for her passing. She even wrote her own obituary, which unraveled a little of the mystery of her exciting, adventurous life. In addition to writing books, Hanson worked as a freelance journalist, she served in the military and she continued to run the ranch after her husband’s suicide.
“She is predeceased by both her parents and her husband, Steve. Early in life Georgie became passionate about finding her family tree, which brought her to Ireland in 1453,” she wrote. “Her great-great-great grandfather Captain William Ross and his wife Mary settled the community of New Ross, Nova Scotia under the leadership of Governor Dalhousie.”
She asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Pet Save Sudbury. Hanson, who loved animals, was thrilled that in the days before her passing, she found a forever home for her beloved pooch, Ally.
Hanson, who grew up in Mission, BC, settled in Field in 2001 before moving down the road to Sudbury. She had a tender eye and was skilled with a paintbrush.
“Georgie was also an oil painter and artist of some merit. She enjoyed helping others in every way possible,” Hanson wrote of herself. “On Facebook she ran several breast cancer support groups. She also loved to help people; as a result she created a group named Totally Free Sudbury that brought those willing to give away items together with those who were in need in the Sudbury area. She served in the Canadian armed forces as a military police officer. She also went to CDI College for a degree in web design and later she attended Mount Royal University and attained her bachelor of communication in journalism. Her greatest passion was being a freelance journalist for papers across Canada.”
— with files from Mia Jensen
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