Ronel Salwach wanted to go out in style and she needed a car.
But she needed more than just a car. She needed a ride fit for a queen.
“For some reason, she said she just wanted a fancy car,” Leyna Salwach said of her mother.
“Never gave a crap about cars her whole life, but she wanted a fancy car — and she didn’t want any of us to drive.”
Ronel was terminally ill — stricken with bladder cancer — and had decided to receive medical assistance in dying. But she wanted to take one last ride through her hometown before her life ended.
“Then the hospice people just took it away,” Leyna said.
“As soon as she said, ‘This is what I want,’ they went to work.”
The team at the Marjorie Willoughby Memorial Hospice Home in Sahali reached out to the Zimmer Autogroup, where they spoke with Darla Zimmer, who immediately agreed to provide a vehicle and driver.
The car was a Mercedes-Benz S63, the high-end German automaker’s flagship.
Not only did Darla provide the car, she was also behind the wheel on that September day after the original driver bowed out the night before.
“When I did it, I was quite nervous and apprehensive,” Darla said.
“But after I did it, I kind of thought, ‘You know what, she was so at peace and so resolved.’ And I thought that meant something.”
In the car that day was Darla at the wheel, ferrying Leyna, mother Ronel, father Stan and brother Brad around the city.
Ronel’s final drive took them to a few stops throughout Kamloops, including the family’s old home on Gordonhorn Crescent.
“She wanted to go by our old house that we grew up in,” Leyna said. “She said, ‘I don’t want to reminisce. I just want to see it.’ And then she wanted to go to the lookout to see her city and say goodbye one more time.”
From that popular vista on Columbia Street, Ronel was able to absorb the beauty of Kamloops one final time.
The procession moved from location to location mostly in silence, though Leyna recalled that at one point, her mother checked in on how Darla was faring.
“She gets back into the car and I think she patted her [Darla] on the knee or something and said, ‘How are you doing? She said, ‘Have you ever done something like this before?’ And Darla said, ‘No.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, it must be stressful.’”
The ride ended at Royal Inland Hospital, where Ronel received medical assistance in dying and passed away at 11:36 a.m. on Sept. 13 at the age of 73.
The day has had a profound effect on both Leyna and Darla.
“For a perfect stranger to do this for a family that she’s never met, you’re forever part of that day,” Leyna said. “For the rest of my life, you’re in that day because you did that.”
For Darla, the experience gave her the opportunity to face her own feelings on the subject of medically assisted death.
“I was never sure of how I felt about it, but I was always very sure that I hoped that I could be supportive if someone wanted to do it,” she said.
“Whether you believe it or whether you don’t believe it, I don’t think is the issue. It’s whether or not you can support the person that wants to do it.
“In the scheme of things, it was a small thing for us to provide. It was basically an hour of my time, but something that will have an impact on so many people for the rest of our lives.”
Leyna agrees that those moments of small kindness can have an immense impact.
“Don’t ever think that if someone asks you something, it’s just a little thing,” she said.
“That might be the biggest thing in the world to that family or that person. We all can be kind to each other. And you never know the impact you’re going to make.”
Medically assisted death in Canada
Medical assistance in death has been legal in Canada since 2016, but Canadians are only allowed to seek it out if they meet a set of established criteria.
The criteria includes requirements that the individual must have a serious illness, disease or disability, be in an advanced state of decline that cannot be reversed, be suffering intolerably from their illness, disease, disability or state of decline and be at a point where natural death has become reasonably foreseeable.
It may not be an easy conversation to have, but it’s one that’s coming up more and more frequently as part of the overall picture of an individual’s end-of-life care. And, many times, it doesn’t go any further than a conversation — 50 per cent of those found eligible for medical assistance in dying do not proceed.
For those who do decide to proceed, there are a number of steps to move through including multiple medical assessments.
Even after navigating those hoops, the patient is given time to reflect on the decision before being able to move ahead with medical assistance in dying.
“Once you’ve been found eligible and you’re determining when and where this might happen, there’s a requirement for a 10 day reflection period,” said Dr. Douglas Smith, executive medical director for Interior Health for long term care, palliative and end of life care, and medical assistance in dying.
“Once the patient has signed the consent, that clock starts ticking after the consent is signed.”
The measure ensures the patient has the opportunity to decide that medically assisted dying is truly the course of action they want to take.
The patient is free to back out of the process at any point, right up to the moment the procedure is about to happen.
Additionally, the patient must continue to be capable of granting consent at every stage of the process.
Smith explained that, because this legislation is so new, there have been some issues that needed to be addressed, particularly on the ethical side of things.
“One of the initial things in the medical community, and still is to some extent, is a division in beliefs and philosophy between doctors in palliative care field and those involved in medical assistance in dying,” he said.
Not all doctors are willing or able to provide medical assistance in dying, but health care providers are tasked with providing an effective transfer of care if they choose not to offer the care themselves.