HINTON — David Schwartz doesn’t know if he can forgive his sister for helping their 79-year-old mother commit suicide.
But if there’s anyone who should share the blame, he says, it’s the American health system.
“The U.S. health-care system failed,” Schwartz, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force, said from his home in Clarksville, Tenn.
“My mom’s dead and my sister’s in jail … I have a lot of hard feelings for the whole way this situation occurred.”
Last week, a courtroom west of Edmonton heard how Linda Jean McNall, 53, made a suicide pact with her mother, Shirley Vann, as the older woman’s health worsened. The pair had lived together and cared for each other for decades.
In April, the women sold everything they owned, abandoned their apartment in Sierra Vista, Ariz., and headed north to Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Nearly a month later, they pitched a tent at Rock Lake near Hinton, about 350 kilometres west of Edmonton.
They injected themselves and their two pet dogs with insulin, swallowed some sleeping pills and opened a propane tank.
Vann and the animals died but McNall survived, despite several more attempts over the next couple of days.
McNall pleaded guilty to aiding a suicide, a rare charge that has resulted in only a handful of convictions in Canada. She is to be sentenced on Jan. 7.
Schwartz said both his mother and sister were sick and had mounting medical bills and debts. He estimated they owed about $50,000.
“I knew they were having problems and things like that. I didn’t know that they were going to take these drastic actions.”
Vann, once a successful real estate agent, had been battling colon cancer since 2010. During invasive surgery, she had an intestine removed and developed kidney problems.
Schwartz questions how sick his mother was, despite some obvious health concerns, before the fateful trip to Canada.
Court heard her health was “declining,” but was she dying?
She often sounded upbeat on the phone, he recalled.
“That’s where I’m conflicted. I was under the assumption, when I heard from my sister, that she was in real bad shape.
“But folks in Sierra Vista thought she was doing better.”
An autopsy showed that the senior was poisoned by propane and insulin.
There was no active cancer in her body.
McNall’s lawyer, Laura Stevens, said the cancer was gone but daily living had become difficult for Vann.
“In the end, Shirley wished to die, and asked Linda to help her,” said Stevens.
“Linda tried to postpone this but realized that she wanted to help her mother’s wish.”
She said the two women headed for the Hinton area because they thought it was the most beautiful place on Earth.
“That is where they wished to die — together.”
Schwartz described his mother and sister as very close.
He said McNall was trained as a nurse and worked in various medical facilities.
She contracted hepatitis C while on the job years ago then developed diabetes and depression.
But, her brother said, she was still well enough to work and he believes she had a job up until the women left for Alberta.
She was married briefly in the ’80s, but didn’t move far from her mother’s place in Florida.
She and her husband settled in a house next door, said Schwartz.
After his sister’s divorce, and after their mother also divorced their father, the two women travelled the country like “nomads,” moving to Nevada and Idaho before arriving in Arizona, Schwartz said.
He tried to phone them every Sunday.
In April, when he hadn’t been able to reach them for a few weeks, Schwartz asked police to check on them.
“When they opened the door of the apartment, they found materials and things were gone, and a note that they had written to the folks that ran the apartment complex saying, basically, ‘We apologize for not paying our rent. Anything we left, you guys can have.”’
The women said in their note that they had also written letters to their many creditors and that they were going to get help for Vann, but offered no explanation.
Schwartz said he called clinics and hospitals his mother had been to in the past, but didn’t track them down.
Then, on May 12, Mother’s Day, a police officer knocked on his door and told him that Mounties in Canada had found his mother dead in a vehicle parked outside the Hinton hospital. His sister was alive, but had been admitted for care. Days later, she would be under arrest.
Details emerged in court about how McNall had discovered her mother dead in the tent and was determined to die as well.
She drove to Hinton for more propane bottles and supplies. But each time she fell asleep at the campsite, she woke up. She finally drove to the Hinton hospital with her mother’s body. Staff found two propane tanks still releasing gas inside their vehicle.
A Crown prosecutor told court he’ll be content if McNall gets time served for the eight months she has already spent in custody.
She will be deported back to the U.S. at some point.
A doctor has recommended she be transferred to a hospital there to receive treatment for depression.
Stevens said her client will continue to need care when she is released. “The hope is that she will find a wish to live again.”
Canadian doctors have been giving McNall compassionate care since her arrest, Stevens said. But without medical insurance, no U.S. health facility has yet agreed to take her.
Stevens said a fundraiser is being organized because McNall has nothing — no money, no belongings, no home.
Schwartz said he’s not sure if he even wants to talk to his sister again. But he does want her to get help.
“Hopefully she can get back to the United States, find a place to stay and get a job … and hopefully get on with her life.”