Thursday, 28 January 2010

Lynn's story

On the 3rd December 2008, Lynn Gilderdale persuaded her mother to help her to die. She had been suffering from a severe form of ME since her teens, and at 31 she was tired of living her life confined to her bed, unable to speak or feed herself. She wanted a way out. A 'Do not resuscitate' order lay in her medical notes, her 'Living Will' alongside it, but to actually end her life, she needed help. I cannot imagine how painful it must have been for her mother to have been a part of this, and how terrifying. When the syringes of morphine didn't work Kay Gilderdale tried crushing anti-depressants and sleeping pills and passing them down Lynn's nasogastric tube. The deed still not done she added further morphine injections along with syringes full of air with the aim of blocking the blood supply to her lungs. It took 28 hours for Lynn to die.

This tragic story has finally been put to rest this week, with a jury clearing Kay Gilderdale of attempted murder. But it should never have gone to court. The real crime was to put a grieving mother through this extended ordeal for a prosecution which would have served no one. But there is another reason why I believe that this trial has been harmful, and that is because it has suggested to us that what Kay Gilderdale did was right.

Please don't get me wrong, it's clear that given the terrible circumstances that she found herself in, what Kay did was selfless, compassionate and brave. But are we truly to believe that it was right?

If you believe that it was, then what you are calling for is a change to UK law to legalise assisted suicide, or euthanasia. You must then consider the barrage of troublesome questions that this would raise. What if in a future case the 'assistant' had something to gain from the death? What of the pressure it could impose on those who are terrified that they have become a burden on family and friends? Where and how do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not?

If on the other hand you believe that what Mrs Gilderdale did was wrong, then you must maintain that it is preferable for someone like Lynn, with unbearable suffering, to struggle on. That it is reasonable to deny the help that she so desperately craved.

The truth is that it's disconcertingly hard to know where to stand on this. As a doctor I would never want to be involved in ending someone's life prematurely, yet nor would I want to be responsible for extending suffering. What I do believe is that we should not be encouraging people to take these decisions into their own hands. What took place in December 2008 would have been distressing and frightening for both mother and daughter and must not be seen as a satisfactory course of events.

So where do we go from here? Despite recent guidance from the director of public prosecutions, the legalities of assisted suicide remain unhelpfully vague and open to interpretation. Even so, I can't help thinking that new legislation is unlikely to be the answer here, in a field where each case will vary enormously and therefore should be looked at individually.

We do have a duty to help and support those who can bear life no longer, but whether this should be extended to assisting in ending life remains an enormous ethical question. The current situation however, where families are being forced into making these decisions in isolation and secrecy, not knowing whether criminal charges may follow, seems less than ideal.

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