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'I must be destroyed:' Transgender woman seeks medically assisted death

'When a person is in immense mental pain and no treatment can help them, under the current system people are left to suffer grievously, which is cruel and unusual punishment,' says Barrie resident Savannah Meadows
Savannah Meadows (right) sits with her mother, Sharon Turcott, in Barrie. | Shawn Gibson/BarrieToday

After suffering from “severe” mental health issues for more than 40 years, Savannah Meadows believes she is ready to die through medically assisted death and wants the federal government to give her the same rights as someone with physical ailments.

Medical assistance in dying (MAID) has been legal in Canada since 2016, and has since been reserved for the terminally ill as a merciful way to end their lives. The intent of the original legislation was to give people who are suffering intolerable pain from a physical condition the choice to die on their own terms.

Meadows, 44, says she will be applying for MAID once eligibility opens up to people suffering from mental illness.

The Barrie woman says she has suffered from “severe mental anguish” since she was four years old and has not been able to find any treatment or medication that works for her. She says nothing has been able to get rid of her “ever-constant, ever-growing pain,” even though she’s had plenty of psychological treatment in her life.

“I’m sure you can understand that some mental health issues are so severe and the pain they cause so great that they cannot be effectively treated or cured,” Meadows told BarrieToday. “When a person is in immense mental pain and no treatment can help them, under the current system people are left to suffer grievously, which is cruel and unusual punishment.

“We care more for animals in pain, when we dispatch them to end their suffering, than we do for human beings.”

The federal government appointed a group of experts to develop MAID practice standards, in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, regulatory bodies and clinicians across Canada.

New federal legislation, introduced Thursday by the Liberals, will implement a one-year delay in the expansion of MAID to include people suffering solely from mental illness.

According to the CBC, Justice Minister David Lametti said: “It is clear more time is needed to get this right. The proposed one-year expansion is necessary to ensure that we move forward on this sensitive and complex issue in a prudent and measured way.

“The Liberals delaying ... MAID until 2024 is absolutely devastating,” Meadows told BarrieToday this morning. “I can’t stop thinking about it, crying about it and considering my next steps. 

“Unlike the government, my pain doesn’t take a holiday.”

Bomb explodes, gender transition

Meadows is a transgender woman who some people may have known as Ryan Skillen. He was charged after placing a bomb close to the communications tower near Highway 400 and Bayfield Street on Sept. 8, 2002.

Skillen ran a wire into a wooded area near the tower property, which was known as a popular shortcut for local students. The scale of damage could have been unfathomable. But the bomb went off prematurely, severing two fingers on his left hand, while also embedding pieces of shrapnel in his leg and soaking him with gasoline.

More than 20 years later, Meadows says she had built the bomb in the week prior for the purpose of killing herself following an argument with a family member. 

“As I walked through the streets of Barrie, carrying this bomb in a shopping bag, I thought about the people who have hurt me in my life,” she said.

She soon became fixated on harming police and headed toward the former Barrie OPP detachment on Rose Street.

“As I was coming along a trail from Bayfield toward Rose Street, a branch caught the fishing line attached to the trigger of the bomb, it snagged the fishing line, pulling it and setting the bomb off while I was walking with it,” Meadows recalled.

“The explosion happened just under the radio tower, on the path that was there. I decided to walk home, but after starting to stumble and knowing I would never make it home, I then walked across the street to the OPP station, used an emergency phone on the outside of the building, and called for help.”

Meadows says she woke up with police and ambulances everywhere and then remembers being at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre before being transported to London for hand surgery.

Skillen was sent to a London jail, and then shipped to the Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) in Penetanguishene, charged with making/possessing an explosive substance to endanger life or cause serious damage to property, possession of a firearm or ammunition contrary to a prohibition order, and a failure to comply.

On Feb. 13, 2003, Skillen was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to seek psychiatric help.

“I’ve been called so many names: psychopath, terrorist, mad bomber, criminal, crazy, insane, narcissistic, deranged, and other names like that,” Meadows told BarrieToday. “Throughout my life, I’ve put great fear into many people, including the police.”

Meadows says it was years later, long after the bomb incident, when Skillen would come to grips with his gender identity.

“I would then spend the next 10 years going through my transition from male to female, including getting both breast augmentation and vaginoplasty surgeries,” she said. “Sadly, none of this did anything to help reduce the ever-constant, ever-growing pain inside me. Like a volcano exploding and spewing lava and rocks in all directions, my anger and my rage often explodes on very undeserving people.

“I live with such deep remorse and guilt over all the people I’ve hurt in my life with my words or actions. This craziness hasn’t been without serious consequences. I blew off half my hand. I’ve been in and out of jail many times,” Meadows said.

‘Die with dignity’

Her mother, Sharon Turcott, is also actively involved and not just supporting Meadows, but trying to make MAID an option for other people suffering from mental health issues. Meadows is the administrator of the Facebook group MAID-Medical Assistance in Dying Canada, while her mom created the group Dying On My Terms.

“People ask how I could want my daughter to die, but that’s not it at all,” Turcott told BarrieToday. “I absolutely do not want Savannah to die, but the flip side of the coin is she is in pain every single day. As a parent, do I want to see that? The answer is no.

“That’s how getting involved started, for Savannah, but it continued as I believe it is someone’s body and choice on how they should die with dignity.”

Turcott says she watched her child suffer from mental illness since age four, when her young son was in a Scarborough psychiatric ward, and he wasn’t properly diagnosed until 12 or 13 years later.

“It’s very hard to know something is wrong, but that no one can help, or knows how to help,” Turcott said.

An advocate for many years on various issues, Turcott was active in prisoner rights when Meadows was incarcerated at the CNCC. Turcott started a group called Families Against Private Prisons Abuse (FAPPA), whose goal was to ensure prisoners were treated fairly and humanely.

“My advocacy starts with her and did even when she was a he and she nearly blew herself up,” Turcott said. “I am especially over-protective because her father hasn’t been in the picture for many years. Someone has to be there for her and while I am her mother, I am also her best friend.”

Meadows echoed that sentiment and said their mother-daughter relationship is a close one. The depth of that relationship makes the decision to seek MAID even more difficult, she says.

“I think of my mother. I don’t want to do that to her,” Meadows said. “We are best friends and she is all I’ve ever had. She is the only person who has stood by me from the day I was born. And look now; she stands behind me even now. My mom is the greatest person I’ve ever known.”

Meadows says her mental strife prevents her from having healthy relationships with people, and she hasn’t had a girlfriend or anybody to love since 2001, which she says adds to her appreciation for her mother.

“I have few friends because so many are either scared of me or just cannot relate to my crazy life and my crazy ways,” she said. “My best friend stood by me even though I physically attacked them on two separate occasions.”

Her mother has always been her rock.

“My mother, Sharon, has always stood by me and she’s seen the best and the worst in me,” Meadows said. “She’s been at all my court appearances, visited me in jail and has moved heaven and earth to try to make me happy. She is truly a gift from God and my only saving grace. She is the reason I’ve held on so long.”

Turcott admits she has also dealt with depression. She says it happens with the isolation of living in a seniors residence, but also as the troubles her daughter has faced and continues to deal with.

Those troubles have caused Turcott’s own family to question her.

“One of my brothers said he hates Savannah because of what she has done to me and his way of thinking is I should have kicked her to the curb years ago,” Turcott said. “But I can’t and wouldn’t do that. She is my child. She is a very different ball of wax, for sure, but the bottom line is that I love her unconditionally.”

Turcott says when she fought against privately run prisons — which CNCC was at the time as part of a provincial pilot into cost savings — and essentially won that battle when a committee agreed jails were run better publicly, she was happy to have been able to help other inmates, and not just Meadows.

“This has given me a sense of purpose. Even when it is approved for Savannah, it is going to continue,” she said. “People’s rights are going to be trampled on and some won’t have a voice. I’m going to pick up the cross and keep going.”

Day-to-day life

Meadows says she depends on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) for her income, because keeping a job has been difficult. She also tells BarrieToday it has left her living in poverty for the majority of her adult life.

“I live a parasitic lifestyle, which I’m not proud of. I depend on others for my survival. I lean on them like I had a broken leg and they were my crutches,” she said. “One cannot ignore that poverty and external life circumstances greatly contribute to one’s poor mental state.

“My internal problems would fuel external issues and those external issues would then further contribute to my internal problems, creating a vicious cycle that I could never break no matter how hard I tried or the numerous methods I employed to do so.”

Meadows says she first laid eyes on MAID when it was legalized in Canada in the summer of 2016 and has been emailing MPs and senators in the country for a couple of months.

“I knew at the time I had no hope of qualifying for MAID, but I was hopeful that they would eventually allow the mentally ill to apply, and through a court decision, the government was forced to offer that,” she said. “Once I realized at that time MAID would not be available for me, I checked into the services other countries offered in terms of euthanasia/doctor-assisted suicide. A promising service ... in Switzerland popped up, but being on ODSP, the costs and the complexities of getting myself there and approved were too much.”

Meadows says her interest in assisted suicide was renewed this year when she believed the clause would expire March 17 that would allow her to become eligible, saying she “was just enduring, waiting, hoping my opportunity for MAID would come up.”

Since MAID eligibility has not yet been granted for mental health reasons, Meadows says she cannot seek out psychiatric assessments for the process.

“I tried calling the Care Co-ordination Service of Ontario, which hooks you up with a MAID assessor, but they said to me that for mental health they can’t help me until MAID for mental illness becomes eligible,” she said. “I have already spoken to my doctor and told her I want MAID, but she is not a doctor that does MAID assessments.

“So, right now it’s a waiting game until whatever date the federal government sets.”

Should everything go the way Meadows, Turcott and others are advocating for this action, Meadows will have to wait 90 days between the time of application and potentially being given permission to die under MAID legislation.

Meadows describes herself as a warrior and her mind is the battlefield “with barely any structure remaining untouched or undamaged. ... It cannot be fixed. It’s been damaged beyond repair. The building can no longer support life. It must be destroyed. I must be destroyed.”

And for now, she waits.

“My only focus now is reaching the MAID finish line and I truly hope the government doesn’t move the goalposts,” Meadows said. “I wish to advocate for others like myself who suffer immensely and without any relief. I wish to be the voice, the poster girl for MAID for mental health.”