Woman led fight to legalize medical marijuana
December 28, 2007
Karen Kawawada, Waterloo Record (Canada)
But her family and friends don't remember the trail-blazing medical-marijuana activist as frail. Anything but.
"Cathy was a very, very strong fighter," said her father Carl Devries. "She would not give up even when her life was extremely difficult for her."
Catherine died last Sunday in St. Mary's Hospital, at the age of 49. Most of her life, she had struggled with a host of health problems and pain.
Her origins are a bit of a mystery. All Carl and Elly Devries know is that they saw an adoption ad in a Toronto paper in the late 1950s.
In those days, it wasn't easy to find families wanting to adopt mixed-race children such as little Cathy, but Carl and Elly were more than willing.
As Dutch immigrants, they knew about being outsiders. They had also just lost their second child. They took Cathy in at the age of 17 months.
Later, they adopted a second mixed-race child, Tim. Cathy always got along well with both him and her older sister Linda, said her parents.
Cathy was a happy, outgoing child. When she moved to Ottawa with her family at the age of nine, she immediately introduced herself to her neighbours. When the family went camping, as soon as the tent was set up, she'd be off making friends, remembered Elly.
A five-week trip to Holland in her early teens started lifelong relationships with relatives there. Even in her last days, she treasured pictures of her long-dead grandparents.
Young Catherine was athletic and excelled in track and field.
But the way her parents remember things, it was an accident in a race that really set off her health problems.
Catherine told The Record in 2005 the problems started at age 12, when she bent down and sudden pain shot through her leg.
But the episode her parents remember was a few years later, when she crashed into a wall during a relay race, fracturing her spine.
After that crash, she was in traction for six weeks, then had surgery, the first of several. But the surgeries may have hurt more than helped -- there were complications, infections and side effects from drugs, Carl said.
Later she was diagnosed with inflammation of the arachnoid lining, which protects the brain and spinal cord. Arachnoiditis can be caused by spinal trauma or surgery, and it causes chronic pain and bowel problems.
Her health problems didn't permit her to finish high school in the regular way. She got her diploma by correspondence as an adult, accomplishing a goal that was important to her, Elly said.
There were better times and worse times, health-wise. During a better period, in her late teens and early 20s, she did some work as a wheelchair model. Her parents like to remember how beautiful she was in those days.
Around that time, she moved from Ottawa to Kitchener, where she had friends.
She seemed well on the road to being independent, Carl said.
But more health problems interfered. Unable to work, she lived on a small disability pension. As far as her parents know, she was never in a serious relationship and her health was too fragile to consider pregnancy.
Still, Catherine loved children and was friendly with several in the neighbourhood, Elly said. Catherine wrote several children's stories, which she shared with family and friends.
The more public side of her was her activism. She was one of the first Canadians to be legally allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes.
"Catherine fought very hard for that licence," said fellow medical-marijuana activist Alison Myrden of Burlington. "She was one of the first people to speak up about it and she should be recognized for that . . .
"She knew cannabis worked for her. I watched the difference when I saw her smoke. She'd go from lying in bed and slumping over and falling asleep to sitting up and talking a mile a minute. It was incredible, the transformation."
In 2000, police seized 21 grams of marijuana she had ordered from B.C.'s Compassion Club, which provides the drug to sick people. Devries went to court to get it back, and won.
In 2002, Devries joined Myrden and seven others in suing the federal government for better access to quality pot.
The activists argued it wasn't right for people legally allowed to use marijuana to have to buy from dealers.
They also won, although Myrden says the situation now is still far from perfect.
In the last few years, Catherine's health took a turn for the worse, but she kept fighting. Twice, doctors told her death was near, but she surprised them, Carl said.
"She was such a positive girl, always saying, 'I can handle this; I will get better,' " Elly said.
A few months ago, when Catherine was unconscious, Elly sat with her and sang her Dutch songs she had sung to her as a child. A few days later, Catherine called and sung them back to her, Elly said through tears.
"It was unbelievable."
More recently, doctors told her she might not make it to Christmas. Catherine told them she would, but for the first time, she was wrong.
Her family will receive visitors at Kitchener's Ratz-Bechtel Funeral Home at 621 King St. on Saturday, Jan. 5, from 3 to 5 p.m.