‘She chose to be alone in the garden in a bid to protect us’ - daughter fighting to change law on assisted dying
- Credit: Archant
A decade after the fight for assisted dying was first taken to court, bereaved daughter Zoë Marley tells Geraldine Scott why the law still has to change.
When Zoë Marley returned to her Cromer home on a warm summer's evening last year to find her mother dying in the garden, she did not call an ambulance straight away.
Filled with despair and fear she instead waited, as her mother Judith Marley took what she had hoped were to be her last shallow breaths.
Diagnosed with an aggressive skin cancer just months earlier, 75-year-old Judith had made it clear she would "not let the cancer do its worst" to her.
The disease was originally misdiagnosed, and the tragic result was it was inoperable and terminal.
Grandmother Judith, whose husband died of sepsis in 2005, did not want to face "the torture that lay ahead", and so decided to take control and end her life before that happened.
"She told me her plan to take her life had been a great comfort and had given her courage to live optimistically while coping with such a dreadful diagnosis," said Zoë, 52.
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"Who wouldn't want an easy pain free death, with dignity?"
"She had chosen to be alone in the garden in a bid to protect us from what we all felt was an inhuman law. My beautiful mum was trying to escape. We waited, with hope that she would slip away and be spared the painful and debilitating symptoms that cancer can bring. Up until then she had coped bravely."
Assisting a suicide is currently a crime and those convicted can face up to 14 years in prison. It is this legislation Zoë is now fighting to change.
She said: "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."
Eventually she did call an ambulance, with the hope they would help to move Judith inside.
She added: "I wasn't happy about calling them but we had limited options. We couldn't let her lay unconscious outside."
A first responder arrived, and then an ambulance crew, but even though a lasting power of attorney (LPA) was in place - including Judith having signed that Zoë could make decisions over her health, care and resuscitation - the paramedics were unsure.
"They made numerous calls to superiors trying to clarify the situation," she said. "I just wanted them to move my mum into the privacy of her room and the comfort of her bed. They wanted to take her to hospital. I asked them to move her inside, it was now dark. She looked very close to death."
An on-call doctor arrived, and said he could enact the Mental Health Act to take Judith to hospital, despite her never showing any symptoms of mental ill health.
Zoë said: "My mum was completely in her right mind when [the LPA] was agreed and signed. Over six months had elapsed since her diagnosis and she knew her time was drawing to a close. She wanted to avoid the worse symptoms and escape now.
"To take her to hospital and save her life to die of cancer seemed madness to me. Not all suicides are about mental illness.
"The doctor was threatening and arrogant, telling me if mum died there would be a police investigation and she would have to 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."
Three police officers arrived and by this time Zoë's home was full of emergency workers she felt had no need to be there.
"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 seem unsure of what to do, the expression 'grey area' was used a lot. 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."
Zoë was asked if she had siblings, in what she thinks was an attempt to get someone to disagree with what she was saying, but she said her brother would have only confirmed their mother's wishes.
"I thought 'I think I may end up locked up'," Zoë said.
A call made to A&E at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), where a manager confirmed that even if Judith was taken in, the LPA would stop them treating her, finally meant Judith was taken into her bed. But this was hours later at 3am.
"The police took her suicide letters away and told us that when she died I must call the ambulance crew who would attend again," Zoë said.
"She was expected to pass away that night. I sat with her hoping she would be freed by death. But it didn't come. My poor mum gained consciousness and was beside herself with despair."
In the following days Judith asked the police to return her suicide notes, and thanked them for not taking her to hospital.
Zoë said: "She explained the return of her letters was important, they had been extremely difficult to write and she would need them again."
It was a month later when symptoms from the brain metastasis appeared, and Judith did not receive good quality palliative care.
"The pain in her head was unbearable and the constant vomiting made keeping pain medication down almost impossible.
"The last week of my mum's life was dreadful, morphine injections were prescribed but the all- important chart, that enables the visiting nurses to administer it, was not written up."
And when Zoë pleaded for help from the palliative care team, she was told she would have to be re-referred into the service.
This took so long that an assessment letter only arrived days after Judith's death.
On the evening of Friday, August 17, Judith made another attempt on her life and by Saturday morning she was dead.
"That morning I called an ambulance," Zoë said. "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 heart broken, the mental and physical torture I had to witness was now followed by a police interrogation. I know they were just doing their job, but it was so unnecessary and so unfair. We just wanted to be left alone to grieve privately.
"They took my Mum and did a full horrible autopsy on her. It's really adding deep insult to injury. The thought of the medical examiner removing her brain sickened and disgusted me. I had hoped to be able to see my Mum peacefully laid out in the chapel of rest."
Zoë has now joined with Vonnie Daykin, 58, to become a supporter of Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for terminally ill people to have more say over how they die.
Vonnie, from Itteringham, saw her father and uncle die of Parkinson's disease and her mother from motor neurone disease (MND).
She said: "Until you see someone with a terminal illness go through pain and suffering at the end of their life, you might not realise that sometimes death can be a welcome relief.
"Under the current law, people are not given a choice - they are forced to suffer until the bitter end."
The group supports a law change which would allow terminally ill people, with six months or less to live, the option to control their death.
They do not support euthanasia, which they say would take control away from the individual.
Zoë said: "The medics felt they were in the business of saving lives but my belief is they are in the business of alleviating suffering.
"It gave my mum great comfort to know she was going to take her own life."
Both Zoë and Vonnie want to see a law like that proposed by Lord Falconer is 2014, where terminally ill, mentally competent adults would be allowed to have an assisted death after being approved by two doctors and a high court judge.
It was based on the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, which has allowed assisted dying in the American state since 1997. But due to the general election in May 2015 the bill went no further than the House of Lords.
Vonnie said: "Attitudes do seem to be changing."