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A Puff Eases Pain of a Life Once Dead

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Apr. 13, 00
Edmonton Sun
By Doug Beazley
It's not the nicest spot to spend the waning years of your life - a one-bedroom walkup in a grotty corner of the downtown, north of the old railyards. Some bad neighbours, too. With a drawer full of leftover prescription drugs stashed in her kitchen, Mary spent her first few weeks in the apartment sleeping with a baseball bat. "Oh, but it's paradise," she says, grinning and gesturing with her umpteenth cigarette of the afternoon. "Just a few days after I got here I found I couldn't climb the stairs. Too weak. There I was, on my hands and knees on the stairs, crying 'cause I'm grateful. Because I'm here, I'm alive."
Alive, and largely medication-free. Which is a long way from where I found her back in the fall of 1998, when Mary (not her real name) was eking out a sad existence in the tiny residents' section of a local hospice for the critically ill. Mary spoke to me back then for a story I was writing about people who use marijuana to control chronic pain. At 53 years old she was largely off grass and she looked like hell: frail, trembling, talking in whispers, drawing every shallow breath from the oxygen tube strapped beneath her nose like it was her very last.
"I was already dead. I believed I was dead," she says today, looking quite a bit better. Still bent by fatigue, still chain-smoking, shuffling in sweatpants around her small apartment. And still living with the knowledge that the cancer that took both her breasts could come out of remission in her bone marrow. But smiling. "What happened was I got angry, and I made up my mind I wasn't going to waste the last nine months of my life on half a dozen different kinds of pills, feeling like a zombie." What Mary did was what few people with her kind of illness have the guts or the time to do.
Shortly after she moved out of the hospice last summer, and with the help of her doctor, she gradually quit taking her pills. From the massive daily pharmacological cocktail she was ingesting in the hospice, she says, she's pared it back to one small 10-milligram painkiller every three days. That, and as much marijuana as she can afford on whatever's left of her Canada Pension and Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped money after food and rent. "In the hospice, they'd give me a cupful of pills and call it breakfast," she says. "But the pills don't deal with the pain. The pain's still there, but you're too out of it to say anything or do anything. You're still going crazy inside. "There's this pain drug I was taking, an (under-the-skin) IV. Every second Wednesday. I'd spend the three days before the nurse showed up dreading it, and three days after with the pain in my side from the bloating. "And I thought, 'Every time I get this drug, I have a lousy week.' So I don't do it any more. "That drug cost $850 a shot. My marijuana is worth maybe $300 a month. Do the arithmetic."
Dr. Helen Hayes has patients of her own who'd like to get $300 a month from medicare to keep their pain at bay with pot. Thanks to a recent loosening of federal drug law interpretation, terminal patients can get special dispensation from Ottawa to grow and keep small amounts of medical marijuana. "But they can't be funded for it, and (the feds) won't supply it. And it's expensive," says Hayes, Edmonton's pre-eminent palliative care specialist. She wrote a groundbreaking medical paper a year back linking marijuana use to increased limb strength in a patient suffering from a rare and crippling muscle disease. "Our patients tell us that marijuana reduces their pain and helps them feel better overall. We believe them. What we need is proof, clinical trials that show what marijuana does."
Mary already knows. Life inside the hospice, she says, was like marking time in "hell's waiting room." Life outside the hospice means paying rent, making meals and steering clear of doctors as much as possible. "I go to the Cross Cancer Institute and the staff there is just wonderful," she says. "But it doesn't do you any good. You end up saying yes to whatever they want to prescribe, even if you don't want it. It's like they're trying to help you across the street and you don't want to go. "The time came I had to make up my mind. If I wanted to die with dignity, I had to do it the right way. It still hurts. But now my body, mind, spirit and heart are working together like a four-legged stool, holding me up. "I've got everything I need. I'm alive."

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