Husband haunted by memories of wifes agonizing death

Katie
Katie Tower
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Tears well up in Michael Thorpe's eyes as memories of his wife flood through him. His voice trembles with emotion as he talks about her recent death and the last few agonizing hours of her life.
"It was terrible to watch . . . to see the terror and fright she went through," he says.
Michael's story is a heartbreaking one but one that he must share, he says, so that other lives might be spared.
At 58 years old, Elin Thorpe was a vibrant woman, a published author and teacher who was adored by her students and loved by her family and friends. She was an active and healthy woman by most standards, walking nearly everywhere she went and eating wholesome foods.
Her only vice? Smoking. And it was a habit she would pay dearly for.

Husband haunted by memories of wifes agonizing death

Tears well up in Michael Thorpe's eyes as memories of his wife flood through him. His voice trembles with emotion as he talks about her recent death and the last few agonizing hours of her life.
"It was terrible to watch . . . to see the terror and fright she went through," he says.
Michael's story is a heartbreaking one but one that he must share, he says, so that other lives might be spared.
At 58 years old, Elin Thorpe was a vibrant woman, a published author and teacher who was adored by her students and loved by her family and friends. She was an active and healthy woman by most standards, walking nearly everywhere she went and eating wholesome foods.
Her only vice? Smoking. And it was a habit she would pay dearly for.
Elin died December 11, a mere six weeks after being diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The last few weeks of her life were spent in and out of hospitals, her body adjusting to a battery of drugs to help her breathe easier, and being tormented by the knowledge that modern medicine could not restore her health.
Michael says he had always been terrified his wife would die someday of cancer. But he admits he never could have foreseen the suffering that awaited her.
The last few hours of her life were spent panic-stricken, gasping for breath and shrieking in terror as she struggled through an attack, her only clear words "Help me!" Injections of morphine could not even offer relief.
"If she could've imagined that end, that would have been it (a motivation for her to quit)," he says.
Many times over the years, Michael tried to reason her out of her smoking habit. But nothing ever seemed to work.
"She enjoyed it . . . too much," he says.
Elin had been smoking for 40 years, "not a heavy smoker, just a regular one," Michael explains. She always said it helped her to concentrate and relax, particularly when she was writing.
She long denied the possibility that her addiction would lead to a cancer diagnosis, although Michael says she knew the risks.
"If you're a smoker, you're going to find every excuse to continue smoking. You reason that it isn't going to happen to you," he says. "And that makes it hard for those close to them to have any influence."
Cancer even ran in Elin's family (her grandmother died of throat cancer) but she still continued to believe that she would somehow escape the worst consequences, says Michael, a retired English professor.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the country, with smoking being the main risk factor for the disease.
Tobacco smoke contains over 4,000 chemical compounds, many of which have been shown to be cancer-causing, or carcinogenic, according to MedicineNet.com.
But despite these well-known facts, Michael says he's astounded that, every day, even the most intelligent and educated people continue to voluntarily inhale the deadliest cancer killer.
"It's certainly a gamble . . . addiction, I find, can be very deadly."
Ironically, Elin had been reducing her dependence on nicotine in the months prior to her diagnosis. She had been struggling since early September with a persistent racking cough, diagnosed as bronchitis, which was aggravated by her smoking.
The cough worsened to the point where she had trouble sleeping at night and she became fatigued easily. Walking and any strenuous exercise was too much for her. At the end of October, Michael was taking her back to the Sackville hospital when she collapsed in the lobby. She was quickly connected to a breathing apparatus and an x-ray was taken.
From there, she was sent to the Moncton Hospital, where a CAT scan revealed her tumour, a "mass" that had already engulfed her right lung.
"It showed that she was already heavily invaded with cancer," he explains.
Strangely enough, Michael says he was shocked by the news, only because they both believed she simply had a bad case of bronchitis.
"It did surprise me, the suddenness of it I guess."
The tumour, doctors told him, was inoperable and only palliative care remained.
Michael says he knew the disease would progress rapidly but had no idea how long she might live.
"I didn't tell her how serious it was. She would have given up."
At times over the next few weeks, Elin had comfortable moments where she was able to speak freely and sometimes hold lengthy conversations with friends and family. This gave her hope, despite being confined to bed, losing weight and sometimes suffering frightening breathless attacks.
After two weeks in Moncton, Elin was sent back to the Sackville Memorial Hospital where Michael was told it was as if she was breathing through a straw. Only the oxygen machine and medications kept her breathing normally.
She spent the last few weeks of her life at home, where her spirits rose and she tried to keep as active as she could, using a walker to join her husband and son for supper in the kitchen and even talking of the months ahead.
But Elin was becoming increasingly dependent on sleeping aids and breathing was only made possible with the help of a constant flow of oxygen from the Vital Aire machine.
Then came the devastating attack that struck her early in the morning of her last day at home.
Michael says the nurses did all they could do to help his wife that day, gently restraining her flailing arms and frequently injecting morphine. But Elin's pain was not abated by the medicine and her husband was distraught as he watched her endure several hours of "needless suffering" before nurses were permitted to administer an anesthetic, after which she sank into a coma.
"We were sitting there watching her suffocate for hours. It seemed to be absolutely inhumane."
In her last shaky note, given to her son because she could not speak, Elin wrote "I want to sleep . . . be out of it."
But Michael says she had to wait too long for her request. He points out that if anyone who opposes mercy killing had seen what he and his son had witnessed, they may have changed their tune.
"Why should anyone have the right to deny her this?" he asks. "If you cannot breathe, there's not much left, is there?"
And although he stresses that Elin received the "best possible care" from her doctors and nurses, he knows they too are constrained by the law.
He wonders why it is not a human right to choose our own death when the end is certain and the path to it unbearable.
"The medical habit is to try and preserve life, as if it has some kind of value when you're screaming to die."
Elin died in the Sackville hospital a few hours after being placed in a coma, without ever regaining consciousness.
Michael says he's speaking out on his wife's death in the hopes of convincing even the most diehard smoker to break their addiction, to stop before it's too late.
"Elin and I, we were married for 36 years . . . it certainly wasn't long enough."

Organizations: Sackville Memorial Hospital, Canadian Cancer Society, Moncton Hospital CAT

Geographic location: Moncton

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