Grey areas: Norman Lamb describes the nightmare ordeal of a family over Mum’s death

This weekend we are publishing the speeches of Lib Dem MPs in the recent debate on assisted dying.

Norman Lamb described at length the nightmare a family went through as doctors and police reacted to their terminally ill mother’s attempt at suicide.

It brings home the reality of the issues people face.

Should we really be putting grieving relatives through police interrogations? As Norman says, this family’s experience shows the need for a change in the law.

It was a pleasure to join the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) in applying for this debate. I want to use my time to tell the stories of two constituents. The first is Vonnie Daykin, who has come to Parliament today to hear the debate. She has talked about how she witnessed her uncle and her father die of Parkinson’s and her mother die of motor neurone disease. She says that her mother went through living hell, but ultimately had no choice and was forced to suffer “until the bitter end”.

I also want to spend a little time quoting my constituent, Zoe Marley. Her words deserve to be heard in Parliament, so if I may, I will quote from an email that she sent me. She says:

“In January 2018 my mum Judith Marley was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer…She had nursed her own mother with cancer and had seen numerous ‘bad’ deaths. From the outset, she announced that she would not let the cancer do its worst, but would formulate a plan to escape the terror. No matter how marvellous the palliative care, she didn’t want it.”

That is her right, incidentally.

“She was a very private person; her death should have been a private affair instead of the circus that it became. On a warm July afternoon in 2018, she took a framed picture of her mum, a bottle of Drambuie and approximately 70 sleeping pills into the garden and in this most cherished place, she proceeded to attempt to take her life.”

After some considerable time, her daughter found her there; she had not died and then started to come round. Zoe was then placed into an impossibly invidious position, not knowing whether to call an ambulance. Her mother had already given her lasting power of attorney and did not want resuscitation—her legal right. Ultimately, however, because of the impossible situation that her daughter was in, she had to call an ambulance. Zoe says:

“Her wishes to stay at home and not be admitted to hospital were my priority as her LPA. But was I technically assisting her suicide? My lack of action could be considered supporting a suicide. I was terrified of the consequences of my inactivity. We waited but no change, the day was cooling down and I wanted her to be comfortable.”

In the end, an ambulance was called, and a doctor also attended.

Zoe writes:

“The doctor was unsympathetic. He said he had spoken to an on-call psychiatrist and that he was within his rights to call the police so they could take her to hospital. He was threatening and arrogant, telling me if Mum died there would be a police investigation and she would have a full autopsy. It all made me sick to my stomach. All this time my beautiful Mum laid outside while my ​daughter held her hand. I had somehow found myself embroiled with a medical team that had no understanding of how to interpret the law. The doctor called the police and three officers arrived. I have never had the police come to my door. It was demeaning and frightening. Once again I showed them my Mum’s paperwork and begged them to bring her inside. They seemed unsure of what to do, the expression ‘grey area’ was used a lot.”

To answer the point of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), grey areas cause enormous distress, as in this case. Zoe continues:

“After much confusion they insisted they take Mum to hospital. I was now indignant and focused on what Mum wanted. I made it very clear I would obstruct them. I felt everyone was ‘trying to cover their backs’ which meant disregarding my Mum’s wishes.

Finally sanity prevailed, they contacted the A&E manager at our local hospital who realised even if they brought her in, the LPA would stop them from treating her. So finally at 3 am they brought Mum inside.”

Moving on a month, Zoe writes that the

“symptoms from the brain metastasis made their ugly appearance… The pain in her head was unbearable and the constant vomiting made keeping pain medication down almost impossible…

On Friday the 17th of August, Mum had had enough. She knew only torture lay ahead! That evening she took all the morphine and sleeping pills available to her and by Saturday morning she was dead.

That morning I called an ambulance. My family and I myself felt broken and traumatised. But our ordeal wasn’t over. I was questioned by the police all morning. I was heartbroken, the mental and physical torture I had to witness was now followed by a police interrogation.”

Can we in all conscience put families through this awful trauma? That is the reality of the grey area that currently exists in our law. It is the individual, not the state, who should decide, in a period of terminal illness, whether they want to bring their life to an end. That is why the law should change.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • This a very emotional and difficult area. I have perhaps been lucky in not having had to face this dilemma personally. I am not at all sure how I would react. However, as a Liberal, I know that I must not stand in the way of self determination. It is my view that if someone wants to end their own life no- one- including the state – should stand in their way. Of course there must be sensible safeguards, but the principle is right. I hope our MPs and Peers will give people the right to die at a time of their choosing and will end the jaw that criminalises those who assist them in their final wishes.

  • Andrew Deuchar 13th Jul '19 - 11:44am

    I find this such a complex issue, and nothing I say here is intended in any way to attack or undermine the integrity of the stories told by Norman.

    I had fairly significant responsibility for caring for my Mum in her last months. It was shared with an excellent team of carers, a good and attentive GP, and a local nursing home in which eventually she died. She was not great at communicating about deeply personal things and I was probably equally poor at enabling her to do so, but it was quite clear that she was preparing herself for her end, even though she was really quite frightened as well. She was a difficult person who certainly did not make life easy for the carers, some of whom were much better at handling her than others. For quite a time, the GP resisted having the LPA discussion with her. Although she was quite badly disabled and unable to do much for herself, she did not have any extreme degenerative illness.

    Within that context, generally benevolent, and committed to my Mum’s well-being and protecting, so far as possible, her autonomy, I could still detect the potential for mixed motives amongst all involved, including myself. She was extremely demanding on all involved in her care. I got fed up with it all on a number of occasions. She did not really know if she wanted to live or die. She was expensive to the NHS, and a worry to all. It all ended naturally and peacefully with her family present. It could, in other circumstances, have been so different.

    If the law can be changed so that it retains the necessary protection for vulnerable people whilst permitting a different outcome for the really tragic stories outlined by Norman, so be it. But once that door has opened, it cannot be closed.

  • Mick Taylor 13th Jul '19 - 3:16pm

    Of course I meant law not jaw

  • Kathryn Ball 14th Jul '19 - 8:04am

    I saw the anguish and hopelessness in my partners face every time he awoke, knowing he was growing weaker, feebler and more dependent on other people. He could feel his life draining away into a dull opiate dependent existence. He wanted to end his life at a time of his choosing but was forced to chronicle his own demise hour by hour. The terror of his morphine nightmares, the humiliation when this formerly fit and strong man didn’t have the strength to sit up in bed. Go onto any oncology ward anywhere in the country and listen to the conversations the patients have with each other, they all make the same observation: we dont allow animals to suffer, why do we force human beings to suffer? Not allowing people the right to die is cruel and inhumane.

  • Carrie Hynds 15th Jul '19 - 12:58pm

    Couldn’t agree more with Norman Lamb MP’s assertion that this is something for the individual, not the state, to decide. I hope the government will follow through with the suggestion of issuing a formal call for evidence, which would give MPs a much-needed opportunity to scrutinise the ways in which the current law is failing people. It will be a difficult piece of legislation to get right, but it’s worth it.

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