After a long battle with deteriorating health and chronic pain due to a mysterious illness, Fort St. John youth Eric Coulam has passed away. The young man had made the difficult decision of opting for medical assistance in dying (MAID) in 2022.
His father, Wade Coulam, shared the tragic news on social media, noting his 21-year-old son passed peacefully surrounded by family on August 17, 2023 just after 5PM.
“Eric was surrounded by his father Wade, his two cousins Taylor and Josh and his grandpa Ivan in his final hours,” he wrote. “Eric is in a much better place now wish him luck everyone.”
A celebration of life with friends and family was held in May 2022 when Eric was still alive, helping to bring some sense of normalcy. Eric and his stepmom Gayle Broddle were kind enough to invite Alaska Highway News for an interview at the Fort St. John hospital before the celebration.
“It’s hard, because every day is a struggle. I’ve truly have had enough,” wrote Eric at the time. “I’m at peace with my decision because I now know the pain and suffering will end soon.”
Weighing just over 70 pounds, Eric was on a wait-list for multiple organ transplants, including his liver, kidneys, pancreas and small bowel, the first person his age in Canada to be put on this type of transplant list.
His health took a turn for the worst in November 2021 after recuperating in hospitals in Vernon, Kelowna, and Vancouver – Eric had been a patient in five different health regions.
Gayle said the hardship of Eric’s health was a roller coaster, both of emotions and struggles in dealing with Canada’s medical system. Doctors were puzzled as to what had happened.
“Initially they had no idea. They just had this patient come in with a ruptured small intestine, not knowing the history, and they had to fight to figure what was going on,” she said.
Gayle acknowledged the dire fatality of Eric’s condition, no matter the choice to end life on his terms - surviving another surgery would have been a lethal gamble as he was unlikely to survive another operation.
“Every single doctor that’s been in contact with him has said he’s an anomaly, and they have no trouble with saying that,” she said, noting most kids who need bowel surgery have it caught under the age of two.
Eric grew up with a true love for the Peace Country. He coached Fort St. John minor hockey, camped, fished, and had just started heavy duty mechanic training before becoming ill, another one of his passions.
Ever the loving parent, friend, confidante, and advocate, Gayle said Eric has always meant more to her than blood. He's been a huge part of her life since he was eight, after the loss of his biological mother to suicide in 2013.
“I’ve been like a second mom. Even when she was alive, he’s always made me feel special,” she said.
Eric didn’t reach his decision lightly, said Gayle. She knows family and friends were bracing themselves for the loss, a devastating twist of fate no one expected.
“There hasn’t been a moment in these two years where he hasn’t had to battle or fight for something. It’s been a long road,” she said. “He’s a tough kid. I don’t think there’s any adult that would be able to endure what he has gone through.”
During his illness, Eric was able to find some freedom, taking long drives on the highway in his car, and even going for a dip in a lake, with the help of his close friends.
He also took a helicopter ride with his dad Wade, and had planned to go for one more with his younger brothers, Brodie and Greysen. While their love for Eric is immeasurable, Gayle said it has been difficult for them.
“Brodie knows that his brother is sick and wants to spend time with him, but he’s not emotionally there to be able to know the magnitude of what’s happening,” she said. “Greysen, this is getting to be tough for him - he looks up to his brother.”
“As a parent, I can’t take away his pain, I can’t help him. There’s nothing that I can do, and I can’t take the hurt away from the little people."
The injustice of Eric’s condition hadn’t gone unnoticed by the community, who started a social media page titled ‘Eric’s Army' to honour his life and memory.
Throughout the entire ordeal, strangers near and far expressed care and concern for Eric and his family on the page, with some even sharing tales of their own decisions to opt for medical assistance in dying, sparking a conversation of what dignity means.
“I didn’t realize how many people he’s touched in the community until this, and it’s mind-blowing,” said Gayle. “The community is doing what the community should be doing, rallying and supporting, and sending their love to him - that is above and beyond what can be done."
That love has turned to grieving in the wake of Eric’s passing, with many expressing their condolences on social media.
Eric Tobler posted on social media about his friendship with Eric, as the two had been neighbours in the Fort St. John hospital in February.
“Eric had a massively huge heart. He always worried about others first, and I always respected him for that because I had seen many of Eric’s low days in the hospital. The guy was in 24-hour pain but conquered through the best he could in the last few years,” wrote Tobler.
Friends, family, and those part of the Eric’s Army page continue to share their condolences and memories of the young man since his passing.
Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative. Have a story idea or opinion? Email email@example.com
Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alaska Highway News