Gillian’s father, aged 84, had an incurable disease. His motor neurone function was getting progressively worse. He needed constant care, and wanted an assisted death. In 2008 his family took him to Switzerland, where Dignitas helped him to die.
Gillian’s father was aged 84 at the time of his death. He had mainly lost his motor neurone function and was getting progressively worse. He could not walk and needed constant nursing care.
When he was 82 he decided he wanted to end his life and took an overdose of paracetamol, but recovered. He hated being a burden on his wife, who was also elderly, and who found it hard to cope, even with help. He wanted to stay at home but his wife did not want living in’ help, so eventually he went into a nursing home, where he was well looked after. There were not enough staff but he did not dislike the place.
Gillian’s father and the whole family had always believed that people have a right to end their own lives and a right to an assisted death. In 1999 one of Gillian’s brothers had died a painful death from cancer. The doctors had refused to give him enough morphine to stop the pain because they said that any more would kill him. Seeing her brother die in pain had a huge impact on Gillian, and it made her feel even more passionately about the right to an assisted death.
In 2007 Gillian’s father asked her to write to Dignitas, the voluntary organisation based in Switzerlandwhich helps with assisted suicide. Dignitas was founded in 1998 by Swiss lawyer, Ludwig Minelli, who runs it as a non-profit organisation. It takes advantage of Switzerland’s liberal laws on assisted suicide, which suggest that a person can only be prosecuted if they are acting out of self-interest.
In June 2007 Gillian wrote to Dignitas, who wanted copies of doctors letters. They also wanted a letter from Gillian’s father’s GP, giving the facts of the situation. At first the organisation refused to help because Gillian’s father had not been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her father was devastated by this news, so Gillian’s mother, Gillian and her brother, helped him write a letter to Dignitas, begging the organisation to help him end his life with dignity. This time Dignitas agreed to help. By this stage Gillian’s father was unable to feed himself.
Gillian, her brother and her mother, took her father to Switzerland by private jet. Her father was interviewed by a doctor working for Dignitas, who made sure that her father did not feel that the family had put him under any pressure to die.
Swiss law meant that the family had to stay in Switzerland for at least four days before Dignitas could assist in Gillian’s father’s death. Her father stayed in an excellent nursing home, which was spotlessly clean and where the members of staff were excellent. The family stayed in a hotel and visited the nursing home during the day, so that they could spend time as a family. They chatted about their memories, politics and other things, and enjoyed those last four days together.
After four days they all went to a flat in Zurich at 9.00am. They were met by two fantastic’, compassionate’ people, who filmed Gillian’s father, in the presence of the family, and who asked him if he really wanted to take his own life. He replied, Yes, very much. Gillian’s father then drank a special potion’ and fell asleep. He died within an hour. The police were called. They looked at his passport and took some other details. The undertaker arrived and put Gillian’s father’s body in a coffin, and took him away. At 1.00pm Gillian and her mother left for the airport, feeling that they had done something good. They felt that they could celebrate the fact that Gillian’s father had been able to end his life at a time of his choosing, listening to classical music, and with his family around him.
The family did not have a funeral. They gave power of attorney to Dignitas, who dealt with his body and cremated him. Dignitas sent the death certificate to Gillian’s brother. The death certificate did not give a cause of death. In Switzerland the death certificate provides information on where and when death took place but does not indicate the cause of death. After Gillian’s father’s death there was an autopsy, but Gillian has not seen the report. Gillian’s brother has not yet decided what to do with his father’s ashes.
Gillian is passionate about the right to have an assisted death in the UK and thinks it should be available and paid for by the NHS. She feels proud that she and the family allowed her father to die with dignity, and she thinks that Dignitas is a fantastic organisation.