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Why You're Better Off Being Terminally Ill in Holland or Switzerland

01/21/2014 12:14 EST | Updated 03/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Like many viewers across Canada, I was moved by the CBC documentary Last Right which aired on November 25.

However, I was truly shocked to see who was profiled: Sandy Trunzer, a former member of Company of Women. In fact she was going to be our official photographer, but had to leave because she got sick. I'd known she was terminally ill, but that was several years ago, and speaks to her tenacity in hanging in there.

For the last few years she has been blogging about this near-death experience and for the last year, she has been bedridden in a small one-bedroomed apartment that she shared with her daughter, who put her university education on hold to look after her mother. Her husband had left.

Her story flags so many issues. The stresses on the family and caregivers, let alone the emotional toll on the patient, the insurance industry and the ability to choose to die with dignity in Canada.

So much for "in sickness and in health" those vows are so often forgotten when one of the partners gets sick. I remember meeting a woman who, when diagnosed with breast cancer, was told by her husband that a) she was damaged goods, and b) not only was he getting out of the marriage but he was not prepared to support their adopted son. Where is the humanity in that?

Yet, I don't want to totally pass judgment, because I have never been there. My husband and I often joke, but are deadly serious (excuse the pun) that if we become senile or completely incapacitated we should just be taken to end of the garden, and put out of our misery. But with current laws in Canada, we couldn't actually do that. We'd have to head off to Switzerland or Holland, where terminally ill people can choose when and how they die.

Sandy, in a recent conversation, shared that it took over six months for the insurance company to approve the purchase of a wheelchair, by which time she could hardly get out of bed, let alone use it. Having that wheelchair earlier might have improved her quality of life. Why does it take so long, especially when someone has limited time? Or is that just it, the company is weighing up the odds as to whether this is a worthwhile investment?

When Sandy and I spoke back in December, she was hoping to move into a hospice that was prepared to turn off her pacemaker, so she could slip away, hopefully painlessly. She'd just written her obituary and was pleased with the tone and wording. As someone who has had a life-threatening illness, I am probably more comfortable than many in talking about death, and she and I talked about the dark humour you inject into your daily living so it becomes more bearable.

The hardest part of the conversation was when I had to say goodbye and put the phone down, because we both knew, this really was the final goodbye. And it was. Sandy died on January 15. She actually lived far longer than anyone expected, and for her daughter I am grateful that she was able to spend more time with her mother.

But Sandy leaves a legacy. Her blog Without a Manual is being turned into a book, which will be coming out later this year, with the proceeds going to her daughter and to the different charities that supported her on this last journey.

She was one gutsy, determined lady who faced her death with dignity and humour. May you rest in peace Sandy.

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