Monday, February 25, 2019

Pete got his wish for death with dignity

Penny Craig smiles while reading about her late brother Peter Craig in the Fort Macleod Gazette. “No one wanted Peter to die, but we also didn’t want him to suffer as he had for so many years.”
Story & photo by Sherri Gallant - On the morning of the day Peter (‘Pete’) Craig chose to die, the comings and goings of family and friends warmed his heart and home. They sat with him in his room, reminisced and said their last goodbyes. And, of course, there were tears. Lots of tears.

‘We didn’t want him to suffer as he had for so many years’

When the hour came for the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) physician to start the procedure that would end Peter’s life, the visitors had gone home. Earlier that day, they had gathered in a vacant suite just down the hall from Pete’s. Family and friends had coffee, swapped stories and took turns spending one-on-one time with him. Some people who have MAID want loved ones around them for the actual event, but Peter chose to be alone with the doctor and MAID team (‘event’ is the word used when referring to the actual date and hour of the procedure).

“Peter was funny, like funny ha-ha,” recalls his sister, Penny Craig. “Even the MAID team thought so, telling us, his family, that they’d always remember and appreciate his sense of humour. Most had shared a chuckle or two with Pete at some point along the way. For example, several days before his event, a scheduling question had come up. Someone had emailed him about it, and his reply was ‘I don’t know, I’ve never died before.…’

The urn of Peter ‘Pete’ Craig who chose to die May 6, 2017 through AHS’ Medical Assistance in Dying program.
“No one wanted Peter to die, but we also didn’t want him to suffer as he had for so many years.”

Two younger brothers and their families echoed Penny’s sentiment. While their initial response to Peter’s decision was sadness and concern, all three siblings told him they would fully support him no matter what he chose to do, and all felt the MAID process was handled with professionalism, kindness and respect.

By the time May 6, 2017 arrived — Peter’s last day — he was 62 and had lived with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis since his mid mid-30s; the same disease his sister had been diagnosed with just months before he died.

Confined to a wheelchair for years, Peter had lost most of his eyesight. It exhausted him to try to speak. Often, he wouldn’t even make the attempt because his speech would be unintelligible after about noon on any given day. So he communicated through email from his home in an assisted-living facility, where he resided for his last 11 years. He mourned the loss of his independence, but appreciated the care he received.

“After he moved in, he was pretty down,” says Penny. “I remember one evening that first week, I was leaving and asked if there was anything he needed me to bring him. ‘Yah,’ he said, ‘a gun.’ Of course I didn’t do that, but it sure hit home just how hopeless he felt.”

A music aficionado and an artist, Peter was a well-known fellow in Fort Macleod, his home for most of his life. As one of the founding volunteers of the South Country Fair, Southern Alberta’s annual summer folk festival, Peter helped to organize and promote the event, and he designed sought-after South Country Fair T-shirts, posters and signs. He would kick off the fair each year by getting on stage with a borrowed guitar and strumming a resounding G-chord — the only chord he knew — thereby earning the affectionate nickname of ‘Peter G’.

Before his health deteriorated, he served as a volunteer firefighter. Town residents also knew his name well thanks to the weekly cartoons he drew for the Fort Macleod Gazette.

“For the last few years,” says Penny, “the only thing he could move was his right arm, which was hard for him. He could use the computer, though with difficulty, and was grateful for email, but his vision problems complicated things.”

After he moved into care, Peter would venture out in his motorized wheelchair to the grocery store down the road if he needed something. “But if the roads were too snowy to navigate, or if he wasn’t well, we’d come and pick things up for him,” Penny recalls. “More often than not, though, his Lethbridge and Fort Macleod friends would come to the rescue. He hated to ask for help with anything, apologizing for ‘playing the disabled card’ when he needed someone to run an errand.”

Penny remembers how Peter talked a time or two of wanting to end his life. He told his sister he didn’t want to die; he just didn’t want to live with MS. MAID became legal in June of 2016, and sometime afterward Peter approached a caregiver at his assisted living facility to ask about it. Staff helped him connect with the right people.

“Pete had been unable to participate in life for so many years, and this is what he wanted. It took surprisingly minimal time from when his decision was made.

It wasn’t a long-drawn-out process, for which Peter and his family were grateful. “We were also grateful for the way the MAID team dealt with Peter and with us. We had a lot of questions and they were very sensitive to all the things we might have been going through.”

Penny recalls how the physician who did the procedure was required to ask at several intervals: ‘Are you absolutely sure that this is what you want?’

“So the day before, the night before, the hour before — they asked him. Peter would always say: ‘Yes, I’m absolutely sure.’ And then, the day of the event, he was asked this question for the last time, and he said: ‘Has there been any overnight cure for MS that I haven’t heard about?’ And the answer was no. ‘Then yes, I’m quite sure,’ he replied.”

Even though she wasn’t with him when he died, Penny says she found comfort by assurances his passing would be peaceful and painless.

“That’s what he wanted, and that’s what I wanted for him. I’m so grateful to live in a community like this, and in a country like Canada, where such an option exists. We’re extremely fortunate to have a system that cares, and my family will always be grateful to the people we encountered on Peter’s journey: Alberta Health Services, Dying With Dignity volunteers, and of course the very kind doctors, social workers and other MAID staff who made this difficult time just a little more bearable.

“Peter had it the way he wanted. If it were me, I probably would have had a band playing, appetizers and some wine the night before, to make it a party,” she says, then laughs.

“Peter wanted everyone to relax and chill because this was what he wanted. It wasn’t me, or anyone else, it was Peter. He made that decision and was allowed to explore it.

“We miss him terribly, always will, but there is some comfort in knowing he doesn’t have to struggle anymore.”

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