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My Mum’s story shows why we should change the law on assisted dying

A guest post by Beth Hale based on her message to MPs ahead of the Assisted Dying Bill debate on Friday

Dear MPs

Dr Anne McPherson wanted the option of assisted dying
Dr Ann McPherson wanted the option of assisted dying

As you will be aware, Rob Marris MP is putting a bill before Parliament on Friday 11th September which proposes a legal framework within which terminally ill people could choose an assisted death. I am writing to ask you to vote in favour of the bill in order to avoid anyone having to go through what my mum and our family suffered five years ago. I know that our experience is not unique and that is why this bill is so vital.

My mum, the GP Dr Ann McPherson, died in incredible discomfort in the summer of 2011. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007. Even before then she had been a vocal supporter of assisted dying. Following her diagnosis, this support became an active campaign which culminated in her founding a campaign group – Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying. My siblings and I had mixed feelings about her becoming so prominent in the assisted dying debate, and even wondered at times why she wanted to invest so much of her limited time and energy in the campaign. Having watched her die, as she had watched numerous patients die over her years as a GP, I have no doubt about the importance of her campaign and I am absolutely convinced that a change in the law is necessary.

As my sister put it in an article for the British Medical Journal after mum’s death:

“For at least three years after her diagnosis, mum’s life with cancer was worth living. She put up with many “new normals”, as she called them, such as taking regular morphine to control pain, having to have an afternoon nap, smelling at times toxic, having a chest drain which she drained daily herself, and eating only baby food. She put up with these and was always grateful for the medical support and intervention which made her life possible, to continue with her work, to spend time with her growing family and her friends, to enjoy the days she knew were so precious.”

However, by May 2011 mum had quite simply had enough. She was no longer able to eat any solids. Her chest drain was not working effectively. She felt nauseous and anxious. She had prepared her family for this moment, but it did not make it any easier to accept. I did not want her to die. I was eight months pregnant with my first child and I couldn’t imagine getting through this important time in my life without my mum. I would have liked nothing better than to be able to introduce my baby to his maternal grandmother. However, I also knew that it was nothing short of cruel to ask mum to continue a life which had become intolerable. We all said what we thought were our final words and a morphine drip was set up for mum to try and relieve the pain and discomfort. She hoped to simply drift away that night.

However, despite many years of making it perfectly clear that she would not want to suffer a prolonged and painful death, mum spent the next few weeks in pain, discomfort and misery. Two years of regular morphine had made her tolerant to the medication and it could no longer provide the relief she craved. She began to resent life. She no longer wanted to see friends and family – she simply wanted to die. These weeks were awful for all of us. There was no dignity in her death – it was exactly what she had hoped to avoid. By the closing stages of her life she was just about able to recognise her family. She could nod and shake her head to tell us her wishes but that was the extent of her participation in daily life. Even when heavily sedated she was not comfortable. She was often agitated but not able to express why. One morning my dad found her collapsed on the floor trying to get somewhere but unable to tell us where. She was not my mum. She received incredible care from doctors and nurses alike but while palliative care is fantastic it is sometimes insufficient.

It is clear that the majority of the public support a change in the law. This is not about getting rid of the disabled or depressed or forcing anyone to kill themselves for the convenience of others – it is about providing choices to the terminally ill. This goes without saying and has never been disputed by the campaigners like my mother. We should not let these issues cloud the debate. It is perfectly simple: it is too late for my brilliant mum, but there must be a change in the law to allow terminally ill but mentally competent people the right to a more dignified death than she was allowed. Without that change, many more families will have to suffer what we suffered. We cannot allow that to happen.

I urge you to support the bill on Friday.