The widower of a cancer patient who travelled to Belgium to end her life has said there would be “more dignity and compassion” if euthanasia were allowed in Ireland.
Garret Ahern’s wife, Vicky Janssens, was diagnosed with cancer 10 years before her death and as time went on, the pain became excruciating.
When doctors told her the cancer had spread to her bones, liver and stomach, she was offered palliative treatment that would extend her life by a matter of months.
“At this stage, she’s unable to eat very much,” Garret told Lunchtime Live.
“She’s barely able to drink and she is constantly wracked with pain - which is a terrible thing to have to observe in the person that you love.
“The pain medications just didn’t seem to offer her any relief and she became resolved to the fact that her life was going to end.”
It was in February that Vicky decided to end her life on her own terms; she overdosed on pills but Garret found her and she was rushed to hospital.
“She resented me for saving her,” Garret said.
“She wanted me to let her die.”
Vicky had been living in Ireland for 20 years but had grown up in Belgium - a country where assisted dying has been legal for over 20 years.
The partner of a friend of hers was a doctor licensed to perform euthanasia and she arranged a Zoom consultation with him.
“She contacted this doctor and asked him if he’d be willing to take Vicky on as a patient and he agreed,” Garret said.
They then had a “very difficult” conversation with Vicky’s 16-year-old daughter and told her about the decision.
Flights were booked, a few friends and family members were told and in April, Vicky and Garret boarded a flight to Belgium.
There, they met Vicky’s parents who were not happy with their daughter’s choice.
“I asked her how was that conversation and she tells me that her parents are upset, that they don’t feel that they can be with her for the procedure and that she tells them she doesn’t care,” Garret said.
“She just wants out now and that the 21st April can’t come fast enough.
“They’re very lonely, distressing days but the sole focus is the ending of her suffering and nothing can stand in the way of that.”
The last day of Vicky's life
On the morning of April 21st, the couple boarded a tram to a suburban home in Antwerp where a number of Vicky’s oldest friends had gathered to say their final goodbyes.
Vicky did not have the strength to translate what was being said and all Garret could do was sit and listen.
“They laugh and they cry and I don’t know what they’re laughing and crying about,” Garret said.
Two doctors and a nurse arrive, consult with Vicky and informed Garret it was still her wish to die.
“The first step is the administration of the general anaesthetic,” Garret said.
“Vicky’s final words on this earth were, ‘This feels nice, I could get used to this’ and she smiles.
“Then she closes her eyes and is in a peaceful sleep.”
After a couple of minutes they delivered a second injection and Vicky’s life came quickly to an end.
“Within three seconds, all visible signs of breathing and life disappeared from my wife and it was over,” Garret said.
He spent the next few hours explaining to his in-laws what had happened and called friends and family back in Ireland; his stepdaughter flew over for the funeral.
Legalisation in Ireland
Reflecting on his wife’s death, Garret is in no doubt that it could have been much easier had assisted dying been allowed in Ireland.
“Vicky’s death was inevitable,” he said.
“Had Vicky been able to avail of assisted dying here in Ireland, the ordeal or burden on all of us… would have been lessened greatly.
“She would have been in her house or at the very least she wouldn’t have had to travel in excruciating pain to a country she no longer considered home.
“Her friends in Ireland, who she was very close to, could have been with her.
“My family, my daughters, could have been there to support me in my lonely hours.
“It just could have been done with more dignity and compassion had we been able to avail of assisted dying here.”
Assisted dying is legal in five EU countries; Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany and Spain.
Opponents of the measure have raised concerns it could make elderly and ill people could feel forced to end their life.
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Main image: Garret and Vicky.