A bereaved father whose wife died of suffocation after she declined her ventilator has urged ministers to stop “ignoring” the growing debate around assisted dying.
Helen Catmur was “trapped in her own body” and terminally ill due to motor neurone disease. Her husband of 19 years, James, watched her deteriorate over almost 18 months until she could only move her eyes and one finger.
One day, while plugging in the iPad she used to communicate, he found she had been researching Dignitas. But Helen was too unwell to travel from their home in St Neots, Cambs, to Switzerland.
She later told a hospital doctor via the iPad: “I want to die.” In November 2016, Helen decided to hasten her death in the only way she could – by refusing the ventilator she had become reliant on to breathe.
She was given drugs to stop her panicking as she slowly suffocated, dying three days later aged 57. James, 62, recalled: “I had been warned that her breathing would change in pace.
“I sat beside her and heard her breathing change, and she died. In the end you actually die of carbon dioxide poisoning, which causes your body to in essence shut down because you aren’t getting the oxygen.”
The couple’s children, Alasdair, 22, and Iona, 21, were then only teens. James said the limited options available to Helen were “not good enough in this modern age”. He added: “Watching the woman I loved being trapped in her own body was horrible for me and the children.”
The Daily Express Give Us Our Last Rights campaign seeks a change in the law to allow terminally ill adults who are of sound mind, with less than six months to live, to request medical assistance to end their lives.
Assisting a suicide is illegal in England and those convicted face up to 14 years in prison. Helen was a medical negligence lawyer and kept her Dignitas research secret so her family could not be accused of assisting her if she chose that path.
James, a risk management expert, has lived with slow-progressing multiple sclerosis for 40 years. He struggles to walk more than 20 yards and uses a wheelchair. After witnessing his wife’s suffering he has registered with Dignitas.
James said: “It is partly peace of mind. I don’t want to have to commit suicide, I don’t want to leave my children to find me one day.
“That’s not to say I will go to Dignitas, it just means that should things get to a stage where I don’t want to go on, and I can get myself on a plane to Zurich, then I can go.”
MS is not considered a terminal illness but people with MS can reach a terminal stage, although this is hard to define.
James wants the Government to engage with the growing debate. He said: “It’s not going to go away – this is a movement that’s spreading around the world, and England and Wales are slowly and steadily being left behind.
“The beauty of any decent system is you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.”
Davina Hehir, of campaigners Dignity in Dying, said people would still travel abroad for assisted dying until a safe system was introduced.
She added that others “face a painful death at home” or “take matters into their own hands”.