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How did it come to this? A healthy teenager chooses to die.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill


This article was published yesterday under the title "It's Time To Take Care Of Yourself How did it come to this? A healthy teenager is put to death, at her own request." It has been brought to my notice that, despite finding apparent confirmation of a significant fact across many examples of reputable media, the information was unreliable. Equally, at least at the time of writing this notice, it is not clear that the contrary views are reliable either. Nevertheless, I have made modifications to the article so as to avoid any potential distress to the family of the girl concerned, while the vast majority of the article is about circumstances rather than that specific case. The article is, therefore, republished as amended.

Euthanasia is a complex subject. It has been dealt with in all manner of means, including the tragi-comedy film "Last Cab to Darwin." One can understand how and why someone's physical pain or decline can lead to a wish to bring it all to an end. There comes a point, I am sure, when to carry on is worse than to give up.

But how do we come to the point where a victim of violent crime is in so much emotional distress that she instructs medics to assist her to die and not only they but the law says "O.K." A very personal look by Nigel Morris-Cotterill at a distressing topic that's back in the news today.

I saw the film, "Last Cab to Darwin" on a flight on the way to spend the last few days with my father as he died not of the cancer that was the visible (and sometimes olfactory) reason for his living in a care home but of various things mostly related to the palliative care that, eventually, resulted in his slipping into a coma and slipping into death. The film is a fiction about a man who gets cancer and decides against the horrors of treatment in the later stages of life and travels many kilometres to visit a doctor in Darwin, in Australia's "top end," who has designed a machine that allows those in extremis to elect for the right to die in a way that, the doctor hopes, is just far enough from his intervention to avoid the label of "assisted suicide" and certainly not euthanasia as such. The film gave me perspective, some black-humour laughs (I'm English: of course I like black-humour as a way to deal with stress) and some advance comfort for what was to unfold in the next few days.

My father died slowly, having made it clear that enough was enough. He had signed a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) instruction several weeks earlier before the drugs took hold and he started try to brush away imaginary spiders. One day, he went into a sleep from which he did not awake. I sat, holding his hand and talking to him for four days and nights, playing music, putting his favourite quiz shows on TV, running his favourite DVDs until I reached the point where I needed a break. As I walked through the door into the house that I had already emptied out except for one chair, one bed, a couple of kitchen implements and plates and an incongruously large TV in a custom-built cabinet reminiscent of those my grandfather had insisted they needed in the 1960s, my phone pinged. My father had died.

I cannot tell how many times in those last days I had wished the law were different. While he was well, except for the problem that he had terminal cancer and less than a year to live, I had told him that I would be with him, fighting, keeping him going, always trying to find a non-chemical way, a non-invasive means of reducing his pain and the growth on his leg. In the preceding months I had consulted experts all over the world; I researched everything I could find anywhere in everything from medical journals through to crazy theorists. There was nothing of substance except warnings that I was wasting what little time we had left together. Diagnosed as at stage four (which relates to spread through the body not severity) he had been told that treatment would be horrible and in any case would not work. Every expert agreed. There was, every source except the madmen and women who have an unshakable belief in their own opinions, nothing that could be done. In fact, something did have a positive effect: because the growth on his leg suffered necrosis, there was a pungent smell some time after it was cleaned and dressed. But it was not feasible to change the dressings every few hours. I had a random thought that the medics thought so far off the wall that they didn't want to do it. I've seen the benefits of charcoal and the resulting far-infra-red in socks and underwear. What if we used charcoal bandages? The theory is that it will both reduce the necrosis and therefore pain and smell as it dies. Also, the theory goes, it will help heal and perhaps even prevent some of the oozing and bleeding cracks that are appearing as the cancer turns into lots of what appear to be nodules. Single use medicated charcoal bandages cost a fortune. Washable socks don't. I bought lots of socks and as the cancer grew we cut them to wrap them around. Soon, some benefits became obvious then both charcoal and silver bandages were provided - and then what might have been a miracle began to happen. The dead tissue began to fall away, in large pieces. Underneath was healthy-looking skin. Moreover, whatever it is that's counted in the bloodstream to assess severity began to fall. The cancer specialists decided not to look and said that there was no point in having the leg for study after death because cancers die when the patient dies. My father was sanguine. Even if there was some improvement, the general prognosis was dire. We were, I was, he argued, just tinkering around the edges.

It was clear that there were increasing systemic problems : a heart condition developed, other organs began to perform poorly, his mind started to take on the tell-tale signs of opiate/opioid excess. As I wheeled him back to his room after a piss-poor attempt at a birthday tea, he told me quietly, in a voice that untypically sounded of defeat and helplessness, "I miss Mum." The next day, I left for a quick trip home to Kuala Lumpur, planning that, on my return less than a week later, to buy a convertible car (he could no longer get into or out of a modern car with a low roof) so that we could take drives. Only six weeks earlier, he'd been laughing because he'd taken his buggy off-road and turned it over, being trapped under it. "Saved by my belly," he'd joked.

When I walked into his room less than a week later, it was clear: there was no point in buying the car. He would almost certainly never leave his room again and certainly not under his own steam. Within a couple of days, his condition was such that he would never again leave his bed. His spirit had gone. He gave me the trigger words: "I've had enough," he said. And at that moment, I had to do a volte face, to go from support, even lightly bullying, to keep him going and to obey his wishes and keep my promise: I would sit with him and hold his hand until he died.

When that text arrived saying he had died, I did not feel regret that I had not been there for that last hour or so: I comfort myself that he waited until the only person in the room was a nursing aid that had spent a lot of time with him in less awful times. Maybe I'm imagining it but I don't care and I don't care what anyone else thinks. My only regret is that, in those four days when, because of his instructions, there was no fluid or food given, that it was illegal for me to give him a quick boost of the very drugs that still being administered by machine, had, I believe, ultimately reduced him to the point of no return. We both understood. I was quite prepared quickly, quietly and humanely push him over the edge in an act of kindness and love. But we had agreed: I would not commit a crime.