When Trista Carey, a Canadian lawyer, fought for her client’s right to die, it affected her in profound and subtle ways
“I WANT you to help me die.” Nothing in my years of legal practice had prepared me for that phone call. Did I have the legal skills required to navigate a new and undecided area of law? More significantly, did my own values align with those instructions, and was I prepared to accept my own culpability in the loss of human life if we were successful? The latter was, truthfully, easier to answer. A pro-choice person in every meaningful way, I have always fundamentally believed that we retain the inherent right to autonomy over our own bodies. Assisted death was a natural extension of those beliefs. To the first question… well, I wasn’t certain, but I chose to face the challenge. I saw a woman suffering with unimaginable pain, desperate for help. So I said yes.
In that simple act, I did not appreciate the tumultuous journey that had begun for my client or me. The uniqueness of our case was in the application of the criteria set forth in Canada’s Supreme Court decision: specifically that the “grievous and irremediable medical condition” causing our client “intolerable” and “enduring suffering” had, as its underlying cause, a psychiatric diagnosis. Her suffering was not alleviated by any of the multitude of treatments, some quite extreme, she had already undertaken. There was little doubt but that her suffering was every bit as real and tangible as the pain caused by a physical condition. A woman who had spent her life helping and taking care of others–her family, friends, neighbours, co-workers, and the community at large–was completely dependent upon others to meet her every need. Her quality of life was non-existent. In our first meeting, she described her life as “not living, but not yet dead.”
We were racing against the clock. We struggled to find medical professionals willing to be involved during the four-month period when individual exemptions from criminal proceedings could be authorised by the court but before the new laws had been implemented. We met opposition from both provincial and federal governments in our court application. Our elation at the court’s decision was short-lived when a stay application was immediately granted. A week later, we found ourselves at the Court of Appeal of Alberta, again fighting for my client’s right to die with dignity, in her own time and on her own terms.
I knew that in order to remain objective, I was not supposed to become emotionally invested in my client’s plight. Nevertheless, it became increasingly difficult for me as we met one obstacle after another, and all the while, I received daily phone calls from my client, begging me to help her and asking why anyone would interfere with her request to die. Why, she pleaded, can’t they let me end my suffering? She told me of her inability to reconcile her image of a loving God with one who would let a human being suffer in the manner she did. I had no answers for her, so I put every effort I had into fighting for her. I was afraid to read the decision from the Court of Appeal when I received it, for fear I had failed my client, and did not know what words to use if I had. The relief in her voice when I called with the good news was palpable. The hard-won right to make the most precious decision any of us will ever have –to decide when the pain is too much, when the suffering has lasted too long– was finally hers.
When I received word that my client had passed away peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones, I cried. I cried for the woman she had been, who was lost to her family long ago, and for the release from pain she finally experienced.
Being involved in this case has affected me in subtle and profound ways. I acknowledge that the decision my client made is not the right one for every person. Our fight was for her right to make it.
Trista Carey is currently a partner at Schnell Hardy Jones, in Red Deer, Alberta
As published in The Economist: