Mary Valentich is a professor emerita, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary.
On Feb. 29, my friend Hanne Schafer became the first person outside Quebec to end her life with a physician's help, after obtaining a court exemption to do so. Last month, an Alberta judge lifted a publication ban on her case, allowing her story to be told.
Hanne and I met 38 years ago when we lived in the same townhouse complex in Calgary. She was bright, articulate, loved discussing issues, and enjoyed music and films. She was a psychologist; I was a social worker, as was my late partner. With much in common, a great friendship grew.
Three years ago, Hanne was diagnosed with ALS. We knew the grim reality facing her. Valiantly, she and her beloved husband, Daniel Laurin, embarked on living life even more fully – ballroom dancing, hiking, camping, travels to Europe, the United States, Mexico. But nothing could offset the dreaded scenario. By June, 2015, she had made her decision to seek a physician-assisted death, but Daniel was not yet ready. She waited.
In late August, Hanne informed her sister and other family members in her native Germany of her decision. She took the lead and included all of us, to the extent that we wished, in her search for resources. We found that only Switzerland offered physician-assisted death to non-residents. We applied to Dignitas and Life Circle; both were ready to proceed. But after learning of the possibility of a court-approved exemption in Canada, and knowing how difficult it would be for her to travel, we moved in this direction.
The frustrations were many: finding a willing physician, a lawyer, a funeral company; court postponements; the actual court hearing; the logistics of travel arrangements; the physicians in Vancouver being blocked at the last moment in getting the requested medication. If there was an obstacle, we met it. But we laughed, too: When it was discovered that a worn-out cord was causing my computer troubles, Hanne opined that "maybe the cord had ALS." And when I was trying to reassure an anxious funeral director that I really was not plotting a murder on Feb. 29, she typed that our conversation sounded "like a Monty Python skit."
In her last two years, Hanne was speechless, in her wheel chair, wearing a neck brace, eating and drinking by tube. But she maintained enough strength to type, with one hand, on her iPad. She was steadfast in her support of Daniel, friends and caregivers. Daniel and I promised that we would make her situation known ("after …") so that others might have a more straightforward path to an assisted death.
In the week before she died, at the age of 66, she laboriously typed out details of a dream in which she was a "young, vibrant lawyer, fighting for Hanne" and then, horribly, was transformed again into "frozen Hanne, in bed, unable to move, and feeling pain everywhere." We marvelled at her strength and her determination not to be stopped. When we assured her that we would continue to "fight for Hanne," she would raise her thumb in response, as she did on her final journey to Vancouver whenever we asked if she had changed her mind, if she wanted to go back to Calgary. She would glance at us lovingly, with a half smile, and raise her thumb.
We love and miss Hanne and value her inspirational leadership in seeking a physician-assisted death and working, through us, to promote educational and legislative changes so that those who qualify can gain timely access to it. We can see the thumbs-up sign.