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Arranging my assisted death

A posthumous letter by Alison Woodeson, written as she planned her assisted death in Switzerland. Alison died on 26 September 2019.

I made up my mind back in January of this year that I would arrange my own death. That would be a good opening sentence to a crime novel but it is, in realty, a fact. The experience of an emergency admission to hospital with a blocked bowel which then resulted in major surgery, the construction of a colostomy and the revelation that ovarian cancer had infiltrated my entire pelvis, giving me a prognosis of three to six months, was devastating.

Surely there is a way that effective safeguards can be put in place that would allow terminally ill, yet mentally competent people like myself in the UK to be able to choose to pass away peacefully, surrounded by those who love them.

Equally difficult was the fight back to achieve a level of fitness, cope with the subsequent medical complications and, for someone as independent and fit as I had been, to be entirely reliant on others for my physical needs. At 66 years of age, I had enjoyed hill walking, gardening and travelling. The envy of many of my friends who were now coping with chronic conditions, I had put my good health down to my level of exercise and vegetarian diet. So far, so smug….. But my life had not been without its challenges. Over the past 12 years, I had looked after and been at the death beds of both my parents-in-law, my own parents and my beloved husband of 42 years who took a year to die of brain cancer, whilst being completely paralysed down one side. So my knowledge of access to and the efficacy of palliative care both in hospital and through the local hospice was probably more informed than that of most people.

Alison with her daughter, Eve

I have absolutely no complaint to make about the treatment that I or my relatives received. The good will and dedication of the medical staff encountered have been exemplary. Three doses of chemotherapy and the support at home of the specialist stoma nurse and hospice staff have helped me enjoy some great outings and special times with family and friends. Yet, I see no point in struggling through the final days or maybe weeks that are to come whilst I become weaker and more unwell and wait for the inevitable to happen. The ideal scenario for my last hours in this life would have been that once I had decided that the discomfort of living had become too much, I would arrange a quiet evening in my own home with my wonderful family and few a close friends, drinking champagne and exchanging happy memories. Then, with only my amazingly supportive daughter holding my hand, I would curl up on my own bed and take the lethal potion which would have been dispensed by a GP or qualified physician to ensure a speedy end.

But, of course, this option is not available in the U.K. Instead, I found myself researching D.I.Y. methods on the internet and discovered that there is no drug that you can obtain that would be guaranteed to do the job. Rather, I would have been at the mercy of bogus medications and con-artists. Reading about other methods was equally lowering. The possibility of miscalculation and landing up still alive and in an even worse position was too high for someone like myself who has always been adversed to risk. So, I have chosen the efficient, almost ‘package’ option available from Dignitas in Zurich. With all bases covered in terms of providing the means, the facilities, the arrangements for cremation and the sorting of the subsequent bureaucracy, it offered me an effective if somewhat expensive exit route.

However, the Dignitas option has to be accessed at a time whilst still well enough to make the harrowing journey through airport security with wheelchair and luggage in tow and able to stay two to three nights in a holiday hotel away from the comfort of home. Accompanying family and friends run the risk of being accused of assisting a suicide and, because of this, I have had to keep knowledge of my plans to only those who need to know. I am writing this one week before my flight leaves. At this point, my anxieties are not about my actual death. Rather my concerns are whether I will be well enough to get there and the effects on my daughter and close friend as they cope with what is both a desperately sad and rather bizarre situation.

My aim in setting down this personal account and having it circulated after my death is to ask for all who read it to think about their own attitudes to this issue and put pressure on their MPs and other key decision makers. We need to keep revisiting the debate around assisted suicide in view of the continued advance of medical science that prolongs life, sometimes beyond a point when there is any quality left. I do understand the concerns of the disability lobby and the fear of being made to feel a burden. Also, that any legalisation could turn out to be the ‘thin of a wedge’; for example, leading to access to assisted death for those who are not terminally ill, but mentally ill. The issue of those diagnosed with dementia highlights the difficulties of carrying out a request for assisted death made in more coherent days but then lost in the debris of a shattered memory. I have no simple answer to these very complex questions other than to ask how are other countries coping where it is legal? Is there a process that is working well? Surely there is a way that effective safeguards can be put in place that would allow terminally ill, yet mentally competent people like myself in the UK to be able to choose to pass away peacefully, surrounded by those who love them.