Debates over new MAiD legislation are all over the news, but two CapU alumni are bringing a new perspective
Yaminah Veloso (she/her) // Contributor
Tiffany Zhong (she/her) // Illustrator
Content Warning: This article contains discussions about grief related to Medical Assistance in Dying
It was the summer of 2020 when 79-year-old Donna Jean Walton collapsed in the bathroom of her home. Her husband, Blake Walton, witnessed the collapse and called 911 shortly after. In the following hours, Walton was hospitalized at North Island Hospital in Comox Valley. She was suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, a condition causing airflow disruption and breathing difficulties in the lungs. On Aug. 4, 2020, three weeks following her hospitalization, Walton passed away.
Walton’s COPD was terminal, yet nature wasn’t the one taking its course. Unlike most passings, ungovernable and untimely, Walton’s was different. For her, death was a choice.
Before passing, Walton made a request of North Island Hospital for a medically assisted death. Medical assistance in dying, or MAiD, is a practice where a patient can request and receive care from a practitioner which will intentionally end their life. It can also involve prescribing the patient medication which allows them to direct their death themselves.
With MAiD, the time and date of passing are fully determined by the patient and cannot be influenced by any other parties, including their family. But what does it mean for their loved ones? What does it mean to count down the days approaching their death?
“I knew I was going to create something that expressed what that situation was like, I just didn’t know in what form it was going to be,” said Sydney Doberstein, film director, and Walton’s granddaughter. Doberstein had stayed by her grandmother’s side in the weeks leading up to her death. In just a year following Walton’s passing, Doberstein, and her husband, Fraser Larock, pitched a story to Telus STORYHIVE. “I remember thinking, ‘oh God, I hope I don’t get this grant!’” she said.
Telus STORYHIVE is a funding program for content creators in Alberta and British Columbia. After Doberstein and Larock were given the grant, they began working with filmmaker Danie Easton, a CapU alumnus from the Motion Picture Arts program. Their STORYHIVE series, Our End in Mind, premiered on Dec. 27, 2020, and is dedicated to Doberstein’s grandmother, Donna Walton.
“This is a direct story based off of what my experience was, what my family’s experience was with my grandma choosing medical assistance in dying,” said Doberstein. Our End in Mind also explores the historical contexts, complexities, and general awareness surrounding MAiD.
“It’s kind of a taboo subject,” says Doberstein in the film. MAiD was legislated in 2016, formerly known as Bill C-14. Since its legalization, several articles have shown Canadians’ complex standings. A poll by Angus Reid Group in 2020 revealed that 77 per cent of Canadians are supportive of MAiD, yet 48 per cent of that number are “Cautious Supporters,” wary of the complications MAiD could cause.
Initially, objections were concerned with the limitations of the reasonably foreseeable death requirement, which eventually led the Government of Canada to revise the MAiD law as Bill C-7 in 2021, enabling individuals whose deaths were not reasonably foreseeable, including cases in which mental illness and disability are the sole underlying condition, to request MAiD if they meet all eligibility requirements. Since its revision, new complexities have surfaced, such as debates concerning the interference between MAiD and mental health improvement, mental capacity, and palliative care, for example.
“The main thing is to have a resource for somebody because I didn’t have one,” said Doberstein. The conversations encompassing MAiD generally center on controversies and debate, rarely focusing on the grieving process accompanying a MAiD death. For Doberstein, this absence developed an isolating mourning experience and became the inspiration behind Our End in Mind.
“Usually when something’s scary and exciting and there’s a lot of resistance — for me, it’s usually the right way forward,” said Doberstein. But to tell a story so intimate and personal, she knew she had to work with someone she could be openly vulnerable with. That was Danie Easton, whom Doberstein met and developed a withstanding friendship with during her time in CapU’s acting program.Through Doberstein’s story, Our End in Mind ventures into an unexplored area of MAiD, aiming to be a comforting resource for those in the thick of their MAiD grief. “So, I say to my past 20-year-old self: your story is valuable and you will touch people’s lives in ways that you can’t even imagine,” said Doberstein.