Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Terminally ill Winnipeg woman travels to Switzerland to die

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Susan Griffiths will die in 17 days. The 72-year-old Winnipeg woman will be thousands of kilometres from home, separated from her close friends and much of her family.

At a time already chosen, the once-vibrant Griffiths, a delicate beauty with a throaty laugh, will drink from a glass of water mixed with pentobarbital. She'll be asleep in less than two minutes. A deep coma is next, followed by paralysis of her respiratory system. Death is inevitable.

We understand we will die some day but the randomness keeps fear at bay. Griffiths has made her date with death. She knows the details, down to what she'll be wearing. She believes there is no other way.

"The future's too grim. This is the right direction. It's my life."

Griffiths has a rare, cruel brain disorder. There is no cure for multiple system atrophy and no treatment. She swallows handfuls of pills every 21/2 hours, waking during the night to dull the pain. When she was diagnosed, she looked up her illness on the Internet.

"It said I'd be in a wheelchair in four years," she said, widening her expressive eyes. She was diagnosed in early 2012. "The symptoms kept going on. I stopped reading. There wasn't going to be any good news."

A wheelchair isn't enough to drive a woman to suicide. It was the indignities to follow. MSA will kill her in pieces. She's already lost her fine motor skills. Her balance is affected. She's had to stop riding her bike, playing tennis, driving, having her grandchildren for dinner. She can't sit through a concert or a play because the pain razors through her body.

Griffiths wants to die on her own terms. She didn't want her family to watch her waste away and grow exhausted with her care. She didn't want to waste her savings on expensive nursing homes. Assisted suicide was the path she chose. It's illegal in Canada, so Griffiths, a dynamo who dominated tennis courts and captured friends with kindness and affection, made some unthinkable choices.

First, she would fly to Zurich to die at a clinic specializing in assisted suicide. Second, she would make her decision public. Like ALS-sufferer Sue Rodriguez 20 years ago, she will be the face of Canada's right-to-die movement. Rodriquez battled to the Supreme Court of Canada for the opportunity to die when she chose. She lost her case in 1993 and took her life with the assistance of a doctor in 1994.

A similar case is now wending its way through the British Columbia justice system.

When assisted-suicide legislation is next debated in Canada, Griffiths wants lawmakers and the public to remember her name and her story, to consider a devoted mother and grandmother, a good friend and citizen, who felt driven from her home to seek the death that was already coming.

Suicide is not illegal in Canada. Helping someone end their life is.

Griffiths has written a letter to MPs telling them of her decision and imploring them to reconsider legalizing doctor-assisted suicide. They will receive her message in the coming days.

"Life expectancy with MSA, an incurable condition, is about 10 years. I would eventually lie in bed heavily sedated, with mechanical contrivances and shifts of impersonal caregivers tending to my every bodily function, I have chosen not to live with this life sentence."

She wants them to know she likely died two years earlier than necessary, compelled to end her life while she was still well enough to travel.

When she arrived at Richardson International Airport Saturday morning, Griffiths carefully reapplied her lipstick before being helped from the car.

"Sorry, vanity comes first," she said with a small laugh, before a swarm of grandsons surrounded her. Her daughter, Natasha Griffiths, daughter-in-law, Dana Griffiths, the grandchildren and a constellation of close friends and family gathered at the airport to say goodbye. She'd already had a farewell lunch with her tennis pals, a time of silliness and tears. She came home from that wearing a pink tennis visor and a princess tiara. The night before she left, the family gathered at her Kingston Crescent home for pizza.

"It was not very stylish," she said. "We were talking and crying. We didn't use the fine china."

She walked up and down her street her final evening at home, telling neighbours she wouldn't be coming back.

"I made them all cry. That wasn't very nice."

And she attempted another laugh, even as she caressed the hand of a friend, as the tears streamed down. It was gut-wrenching, this leave-taking, too soon and unnecessary. Friend Jerri Hall called Griffiths her "'Pollyanna' friend. She's the one who always, always looks on the bright side. She's always positive, always, always." The crowd at the airport and their fierce support for Griffiths were testaments to a fine woman and a life well-lived.

Her nine-year-old grandson pressed a small folded piece of paper into her hand. She cradled his face, stroking his cheek. She leaned into the eldest, 21-year-old Miles. "Just remember the good times we'd had," she said softly. "Take care of each other. Remember to have fun."

Days before departure, Griffiths' daughter Natasha protested when Griffiths said her three adult children were OK with her decision.

"Well, OK is not... we accept it," said Natasha of her reaction and that of brothers, Gareth and Alexander. The sons live in Europe and, with Natasha, will be with Griffiths when she dies.

"There is no good option for this disease," Natasha said. "It's watching my mother endure a slow decline and a lot of suffering and that would be awful, or this, which is also awful."

"We had looked into options in Canada knowing that assisted suicide is illegal," she said. "You like having people around you. You wanted family and friends around. You don't want to do this alone, take the risk of it failing."

And so, Susan Griffiths will die in Zurich, helped by people who ease the path of the stricken.

The murmurs and tears continued at the airport. The farewells were stricken, but there was still laughter.

Finally she was wheeled to security. Her daughter-in-law, Dana, escorted her to Europe. The London-born Griffiths will spent her last days visiting friends and family. In under three weeks, she will don her nightie and go to sleep forever.

She glanced over her shoulder once, twice and gave a little wave, so small and frail in her wheelchair. Her tears ran unchecked.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2013 B1

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Updated on Monday, April 8, 2013 at 7:19 AM CDT: changes headline, adds photo, corrects cutlines

2:20 PM: Adds video

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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