20-year-old with unknown illness pursues medically assisted death: ‘I’m in lots of pain’

Eric Coulham has suffered for the better part of a decade from an illness that escapes diagnosis

Johanna Chisholm
Saturday 25 June 2022 07:43 BST

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A 20-year-old Canadian man has decided to pursue medically assisted dying after suffering for several years with a medical condition that has escaped diagnosis.

Eric Coulam, a resident of Fort St John, a small northeastern city in British Columbia located about 70km from the border with Alberta, has been in and out of hospitals treating an unknown gastrointestinal condition, which in the last two years has cost him his small bowel, forced him into liver and kidney disease, led to innumerable infections and ongoing chronic pain that even medicine can’t fully alleviate.

And despite zigzagging across two provinces to be treated in five different health regions and receiving consults with specialists from across the country, Mr Coulam has yet to receive a proper diagnosis for a condition that has plagued him for the better part of a decade.

“I sometimes lay there at night and get sad sometimes, but for the most part, I’m waiting for the day because I’m in lots of pain all the time,” the 20-year-old told local news outlet Energetic City in one of his last public interviews. “I’m on many meds just to be comfortable for a few hours.”

Mr Coulam, according to recent posts from friends and family in his more than a thousand-strong “Eric’s Army” Facebook support page, is too ill at this time to conduct interviews or respond to all the hundreds of messages he’s been receiving through multiple mediums – text messages, Facebook, phone calls – from an outpouring of support from people moved by his story.

Eric, second left, poses with his father, Wade Coulam, left, and his two younger brothers

While his health took a serious turn for the worse in October 2019, his grandmother, Donna Suski, told The National Post and Mr Coulam told local news outlet Energetic City in separate interviews that he first began getting signals from inside his body that something was off in 2013, shortly after his mother had died by suicide.

“It began as minor symptoms,” he told Electric City back in May, shortly after he’d arrived at the decision to request for a medically assisted death, better known in Canada as MAID after June 2016, when the Parliament of Canada passed federal legislation that allows eligible adults to request the procedure.

Between those first brushes with intestinal mysteries in 2013, some of which landed him in the Fort St John emergency room, and 2019, Mr Coulam was able to have a somewhat normal teenage life.

Gayle Broddle, now married to the 20-year-old’s father, Wade Coulam, described in painful detail in a GoFundMe created in September 2020 how in a short amount of time they watched their son’s life go from coaching hockey and riding dirt bikes to prolonged hospital stays and losing so much weight he became a mere shadow of his previous self as he dropped to just 73lbs.

Eric poses in hospital with a graduation cap. He graduated high school early and later perused his goal of becoming a heavy duty mechanic by starting his level 1 apprenticeship in college

“He went from being actively involved in the community … helping out where he could, and just all of a sudden he started to get sick,” Ms Broddle said in an interview with Alaska Highway News in September 2020. At that point, Mr Coulam had just rung in two major milestones: his 19th birthday, worth celebrating, and his seven-month anniversary of being hospitalised without diagnosis.

“Imagine spending your 19th birthday in the hospital. There is not one person who could fathom what he is dealing with emotionally,” Ms Broddle wrote on the online fundraiser in September 2020. The family had created the GoFundMe to help offset the costs of travelling between their home in British Columbia and Alberta’s Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, a seven-hour drive from their home.

Between the spring and fall of 2020, Mr Coulam would be placed in a week-long medically induced coma, undergo a surgery where he’d have his small bowel removed, receive countless blood transfusions and worse yet, be told that he required an extremely rare multivisceral transplant, which includes the liver, kidney, pancreas and small bowel.

Despite the serious lows, there were moments of reprieve that the family took time to celebrate. In November 2020, he was able to go on a five-day family trip, his first time outside the hospital in several months, and by February 2021, doctors were able to stabilise his condition, though he wouldn’t be discharged till July. And even then, he couldn’t return to Fort St John, as the medical support there wasn’t capable of handling his unique case.

Eric Coulam and his two younger brothers while on a five-day family vacation they took in November 2020, one of the first excursions he was able to do after a months-long stay in an Alberta hospital

Instead, Mr Coulam went to stay with family in Vernon, BC, which despite being in the same province as his family, was actually further away than the hospital in Alberta.

By the spring of 2022, Mr Coulam had suffered many setbacks. In November 2021, he was readmitted to hospital and despite trying to fight off an infection, doctors were forced to remove his central line. This meant he was without nutrition for close to a week, having the unfortunate knock-on effect of him losing all the weight he’d previously made great strides in gaining back since he dropped to below 80lbs the year before.

It was at this point, he told Energetic City, that he began exploring his options for a medically assisted death.

Eric Coulam plays a board game in a British Columbia hospital

In Canada, to be considered eligible for MAID, a person must be over 18, have a “serious and incurable illness, disease or disability”, and be living with intolerable physical or psychological pain that medicine cannot alleviate. A person’s natural death, nor their age, does not factor into the decision, apart from that they must be an adult and able to provide informed consent.

The procedure is fairly new in the North American country, but data from the Canadian government reports that in 2020, there were 7,595 cases of MAID reported, accounting for 2.5 per cent of all deaths, which represented a 34 per cent growth from the previous year.

Most of the cases (94 per cent) occur in people aged 56 and older, with the fewest number occurring in Mr Coulam’s age group – 18 to 55 – who account for just 5.5 per cent of cases.

Since his decision was announced, more than a thousand people have posted in his ever-growing Facebook support page, “Eric’s Army”. Some are strangers who have come across his story in one of the local outlets that have written about his difficult story.

“Your a true fighter and a true hero my friend,” wrote one man, adding that he only wishes that he was able to meet him in person. “You sound like a great person who doesn’t deserve what your going through.”

‘I sometimes lay there at night and get sad sometimes, but for the most part, I’m waiting for the day because I’m in lots of pain all the time. I’m on many meds just to be comfortable for a few hours,’ Eric Coulam told a local Fort St John news outlet about his decision to pursue a medically assisted death

Others are closer in proximity to Mr Coulam but feel similarly moved by his bravery. Brittney Yawney, the moderator for the page, frequently shares updates on a friend she considers more of a younger brother.

“He’s been so robbed of life,” Ms Yawney, who spent several years playing with Mr Coulam when he was living with his grandmother in Vernon as a child, told the National Post in an interview.

Recently, Ms Yawney has felt compelled to use her moderator role more actively, posting as recently as Wednesday night that, though the family and friends are appreciate of the support, they’d prefer that people “stop messaging” with their diagnostics.

“I know it is coming from good intentions but please stop,” she wrote in the group, in what appears to have not been the first reminder of this rule. “[Eric] is in excruciating chronic pain, organ failure, has part of his bowel missing, needs multiple transplants and is constantly needing blood transfusions. So please just stop.”

Ms Yawney, who couldn’t be reached in time for comment, has stated elsewhere on the page that her close friend has exhausted every option and is at peace with his decision. The 20-year-old, who has been posting less often on the page since Ms Yawney noted he has been unwell, said in a follow-up interview with Energetic City much the same.

Eric Coulam, centre, poses with his friends at the celebration of life held at his father’s home in Fort St John, BC on 21 May

“There are people that say things like: ‘have you tried this? Before you go, please let me speak with you. Is there anything my family could do?’” he told the local Fort St John news outlet. “How do you answer that? It’s frustrating.”

On 21 May, Mr Coulam was able to attend a celebration of life with friends and families who wished to say goodbye to the young man in person rather than online, something his friend Eric Tobler described as being a “bucket list” achievement.

“He wanted to be able say goodbye to his loved ones, & friends in person! So good on him for being able to be so strong today & to say goodbye to everyone,” Mr Tobler wrote on the Eric’s Army Facebook page a day after the celebration. “We thank everyone that showed up to say goodbye to Eric today, he really appreciated today, & I know he will hold on to this day in his heart when he does leave us.”

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