Pam Barrett, Alberta's strongest voice of opposition, resigned from her job as leader of the New Democrats yesterday after almost dying in her dentist's chair.
Still shaken, Ms. Barrett said she had a spiritual awakening during an allergic reaction to anesthesia.
"I nearly died. It was very bad, very bad. I actually had a near-death experience. I went into death and I came out. The struggle to stay alive was -- oh, man -- the most freaky thing," she said in an interview.
Ms. Barrett said she had three episodes, one in her dentist's chair and two in the hospital, and believes she died in each of them but somehow managed to fight back to life.
The diminutive politician, who was having veneers applied to her teeth on Tuesday afternoon and had been chatting with her dentist about having a prettier smile for the next election, said she suddenly began trembling. Then everything went dark.
"My entire body went numb," she recalled, her normally powerful voice hushed. "My throat swelled up so much I couldn't breathe."
She went into convulsions and sat up and back down again in the dentist's chair.
"At one point, I felt dead. I said, 'David [Oyen, her dentist] I'm going, I'm dying.' " Ms. Barrett, raised a Catholic, crossed herself.
"For a split second, there was no struggle. There was no nothing. It was black."
Asked what she saw, she said: "It was just fine. I've lost my fear of death."
Dr. Oyen had his receptionist call 911. He opened the top button of Ms. Barrett's jacket and instructed her in yoga breathing techniques until paramedics came.
An ambulance rushed her to hospital, where she experienced a second episode. Dr. Oyen said Ms. Barrett, who has been his patient for three years, had "a quite unusual anaphylactoid-type reaction" to a routine local anesthetic called mepivacaine. He said he has used this product on Ms. Barrett before without incident, but that sometimes people develop sensitivities.
Ms. Barrett said the experience convinced her to resign as party leader and MLA for her downtown Edmonton riding. "It is really hard to describe the spiritual reaction that I had. But this was not a decision that I made. It got made for me somehow."
She said she has no idea what she'll do next. "I realized I need a new path. That's the best explanation I can give."
Ms. Barrett, 46, will be missed by many. Premier Ralph Klein called Ms. Barrett was a "formidable political force." Although the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum, they were good friends and often had lunch together.
"She brings charm, humour and character to every room she enters, and she never lets our political differences get in the way of her natural good humour and her goal to make Alberta a better place to live," Mr. Klein said in a statement from the first ministers meeting in Quebec City.
Many political observers believed Ms. Barrett, leader of a two-person caucus, was more effective on her own than all 16 Liberal MLAs in the Official Opposition.
"She was certainly the heart and soul of that party. It's a tremendous loss," said Keith Brownsey, a political science instructor at Calgary's Mount Royal College.
Ms. Barrett's caucus colleague Raj Pannu will be interim leader until the party can hold a leadership convention. Mr. Pannu has not indicated whether he's interested in the job.
Ms. Barrett, a leading health-care critic, will miss an important Legislature debate over the use of public money to pay private health care operators.
"Pam Barrett has a very personal following. . . . Alberta has always been a desert for the [New Democrats]" said David Taras, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.
Ms. Barrett has had difficulties in her personal life. Last year, she took a six-week leave of absence to get counselling for stress. She said she was suffering from depression and had even contemplated suicide after the death of her mother in 1997. She has been abused by a former partner and has admitted she sometimes drinks too much.
She was diagnosed as having Hodgkin's disease when she was 20, and it has permanently weakened her immune system.
Ms. Barrett was first elected to the Legislature in 1986 and returned in 1989. She took a break and didn't run in the 1993 election because of complications from the disease but returned as leader in 1996.