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Woman had assisted-death assessment on sidewalk outside Catholic hospital

Last Updated Oct 23, 2018 at 4:40 pm EST

Sarah Hoffman, Alberta Minister of Health, responds to a reporter's questions at a press conference during the Conferences of Provincial-Territorial Ministers of Health in Winnipeg on June 28, 2018. Alberta's health minister says it's unacceptable that a terminally ill patient at a Catholic care centre was wheeled off the property near a busy street to have an assessment for a doctor-assisted death. Sarah Hoffman says everyone deserves dignified and compassionate care, no matter the facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

EDMONTON – Doreen Nowicki’s family had tried to get her into several hospitals before she was given a palliative care bed at the Catholic-run Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre.

Her husband says the 66-year-old wasn’t Catholic but was comfortable there and loved the nurses.

Suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, she wanted a medically assisted death. The facility wouldn’t allow it on the property, but was legally bound to help arrange for one elsewhere.

Terry Nowicki says because his wife was immobile and frail, she was given an exemption to a rule that required her to have an assisted-death assessment off-site. But in May 2017, an hour before someone from Alberta Health Services was to arrive in her hospital room, the exemption was cancelled.

Nowicki says a mechanical lift was used to get his wife out of bed and into a wheelchair. Unable to arrange a meeting space at a nearby care centre, the couple’s three daughters wheeled the woman outside and across the street to a sidewalk to have the meeting.

Her private matter became public and stressful, says her husband.

“She didn’t know why it was happening and it was just a real shock to her — why she was out on that busy street with the assessor trying to ask her questions and having cars going by and people going by,” he said Tuesday.

“This should not happen to anybody.”

Doreen Nowicki was eventually granted her wish and died at another care facility the following month.

Covenant Health, which runs Edmonton General and several other hospitals in Alberta, apologized to Nowicki’s family in a news release Tuesday. It said it had done a review and taken steps to clarify procedures.

“We believe every patient deserves to be treated with compassion and respect. That did not happen in this case,” the agency said.

“We are focused on ensuring our response to all patients requesting access to medical assistance in dying … is timely, compassionate and appropriate.”

Alberta’s health minister called the sidewalk assessment “completely unacceptable.”

“Every patient in Alberta deserves the same level of dignified and compassionate care, no matter what kind of health-care facility they visit,” Sarah Hoffman said in a statement.

Covenant Health has assured her that it isn’t aware of any similar cases, she said. Nonetheless, she is encouraging others to share their experiences with assisted-death services with her office.

“I share this family’s commitment to ensuring no one else has to go through something like this,” Hoffman said.