It is coming up to two years since two Lower Mainland sisters lost their mother through Canada’s controversial Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) program, and they continue fighting for changes in law.
They have become unwitting authorities on the subject of MAID, and have spoken at Parliament, to national media, are about to be part of a BBC News documentary, and work with advocacy groups. Their opinions are being sought as the country expands the availability of MAID, to include patients who are mentally ill.
On Oct. 29, 2021, Donna Faith Duncan ended her life with the help of a medical practitioner, despite the objections of her daughters Christie and Alicia Duncan. They argued their mother was not terminally ill, but suffering mental illness – a situational depression.
They acknowledge she wanted to die at that time, and twice attempted suicide on her own.
However, that was a marked departure from the 61-year-old psychiatric nurse’s outlook throughout her life, as she raised a young family at Silvermere Lake.
“My mom was so loving. She was full of life, she was joyous, she loved life,” Christie said. “To see her deteriorate like this… the mom who chose MAID was not our mom.”
Just two weeks before her death, the sisters learned their mother had applied for MAID. After it was approved, they were desperate to stop the process. They went to a judge, and successfully received a warrant for her apprehension under the Mental Health Act.
“I broke down sobbing because I thought we had saved my mom,” remembers Christie.
They could only hold Donna for 72 hours, so she could receive a psychiatric evaluation. She was found to be of sound mind. Christie said Donna’s career in mental health meant she knew just what to tell the doctor.
She was released, and just four hours later she was deceased.
Christie, who lives in Maple Ridge, explained how her mother’s health began to deteriorate following a car crash in February of 2020 that left her diagnosed with a concussion. That was when COVID-19 caused a shutdown, and her treatment was limited. Bright lights were causing her pain.
“She was very isolated and depressed,” said Christie.
Donna spiralled. She dropped to about 80 pounds, because she wasn’t eating.
Alicia said her mother spent thousands of dollars to have a medical intuitive “energy testing” her foods, and reduced her diet to very little. She refused medical care, and became frail, losing her muscle. She said clothing caused her pain.
“Everyone in her life knew she was mentally ill,” said Alicia.
Her physician of 20 years did not approve MAID for Donna, because she was unwilling to complete the course of treatment he prescribed. He said she needed treatment for mental illness.
“His opinion should have been the first and final opinion,” said Christie.
Donna pursued the MAID application with a different doctor, and with a nurse practitioner who did the assessment over the phone. With two signatures, she was able to schedule her death for two days later.
At the request of their mother’s longtime doctor, an autopsy was held, and Christie said it showed there was nothing in her health that would have been fatal.
The girls want to ensure that any medical practitioner who delivered MAID without following protocols be criminally charged.
They pursued complaints against the people involved with the BC College of Physicians, but they deemed it a criminal matter.
The case was investigated by the Abbotsford Police Department, but after nine months it was dropped when they were unable to retrieve key records from Fraser Health, and unable to prove criminal wrongdoing.
The sisters have retained a lawyer from Ontario to help them retrieve all records.
“We’re trying to make sure my mom’s death was lawful,” said Christie. “I would like the doctor and nurse practitioner who killed my mom to be held accountable.”
Fraser Health has publicly stated it followed all procedures in the federal MAID legislation.
Alicia said she is not philosophically opposed to assisted death for people who are suffering through terminal illness. Her contention is the health care system is “broken,” and patients get frustrated with a lack of treatment.
“If we had adequate health care, people would be accessing MAID out of dignity, not out of desperation.”
The existing MAID program does not place enough value on human life, she said, noting it’s more onerous to get a building permit from your city hall, than to get approved for euthanasia.
She has not been able to see the MAID records for her mother, but believes a step was missed – an appointment with a specialist about her physical condition, and/or the observance of a waiting period of at least 90 days.
“The safeguards aren’t good enough, and people are slipping through the cracks,” Alicia asserts.
They have a petition on Change.org that is petitioning for changes in laws on MAID.
Alicia is 10,000 words deep into a book about the issue.
Donna had wanted to write a book. She had a title: “The Other Side of the Straight Jacket.” It would have been about mental health, from the patient’s perspective.
Alicia said she never wanted to be an author, but she is going to write about her mother’s journey through mental illness.
“I feel like I’ve inherited this book from her,” she said.
“The end of the story could have been a lot different, if she felt her life was worth fighting for.”