Motor neurone patient Geoff Whaley: my wish to die at Dignitas

February 7 2019 The Times

Ann and Geoff Whaley cherish their last days together. She put her emotions “in a box” when he told her he wanted to die­
Ann and Geoff Whaley cherish their last days together. She put her emotions “in a box” when he told her he wanted to die­BEN GURR FOR THE TIMES

Today is the day Geoff Whaley expects to die. At 11am Swiss time, the retired accountant will go to the apartment where so many have died before him, and sip a cup of water laced with lethal drugs.

If everything goes to plan his wife, Ann, will return a widow to their Buckinghamshire home after 52 years of marriage, and finally face all the emotions she has “kept in a box” since her husband decided the date of his death.

Mr Whaley is 80. He was told that he had motor neurone disease two years ago. In December doctors warned him that he had six to nine months left.

Those who want to die at Dignitas must be able to take the fatal dose themselves. With barely a twitch left in his limbs, the father of two feared that if he left the trip any later, he might have lost the capacity to pick up the cup or even swallow — and with that, the chance to die the way he wanted.

Sitting in his conservatory at home in Chalfont St Peter, immobile under a blanket, Mr Whaley seemed calm, settled and proud of his stiff upper lip. His 76-year-old wife, a cheery woman with a honey blond bob and pearls, whizzed around the house in a state of determined joviality, making tea and going through photo albums of “Geoffrey” paragliding in his sixties and the house they once had on Lake Como.

Their daughter, Alix, 43, checked that her father was comfortable, teasing him gently when he accidentally ran over her foot in his wheelchair.

What did it feel like to have booked his own death? “Bizarre,” Mr Whaley said, with half a smile. “It’s not something I’ve ever done before.”

The Times interviewed Mr Whaley and his family in the last week of his life. Their greatest source of anguish was not the imminent trip to Switzerland but last week’s call from Thames Valley Police summoning Mrs Whaley to the station to be interviewed under caution. Someone had tipped them off about the family’s plans.

Helping someone to commit suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Having booked their flights and hotel online because her husband’s fingers failed him, Mrs Whaley suddenly faced the possibility of criminal charges.

“We were coming into the final lap,” said Mr Whaley, whose voice is among the last faculties he has left. “I really wanted a quiet few weeks to reflect on what is happening and that’s when the bomb dropped.” The stress, he said, had “destroyed everything we had done to prepare ourselves”.

Mr Whaley knew he wanted an assisted death in Switzerland almost immediately after his diagnosis. It was “an insurance policy” that gave him comfort. Afraid that police might confiscate his passport, he decided that his only other option would be to starve himself. He was terrified.

Wedding day smiles at the beginning of more than half a century together
Wedding day smiles at the beginning of more than half a century togetherBEN GURR TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER

“In 52 years of married life,” Mrs Whaley said, “Geoff has never cried, but that day, he put his head down and sobbed. That made me very angry.”

She told the police everything. “I wasn’t frightened because I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong. I wasn’t ashamed. I was cross. My whole attitude throughout Geoffrey’s illness is that I’m here to protect him from all the slings and arrows from the outside world so that he can enjoy the time he’s here. It was so ridiculous to put us through this when he is in the final few days of life.”

Police have since dropped the case, although it may be reopened should any new information come to light.

The family, who have been supported by the charity Dignity in Dying, make no criticism of the police. “It’s the rulebook that needs changing,” said Mr Whaley, whose wish to control his own death has cost £11,000. “I want the law rewritten to allow people in certain circumstances to take their own life [while ensuring] that any weak or vulnerable people are protected against abuse. The two things things are not mutually exclusive.”

The couple met when he gatecrashed her 21st birthday. They’ve been together ever since. Last night, they enjoyed their last meal together at a hotel in Zurich, with their two adopted children, Alix and Dominic. Mr Whaley has left letters for his four grandchildren, aged four to 17, and friends, who have been aware of his plans but were not told the date. “I didn’t want to go through 50 goodbyes so I’ve written them all a short note to be sent in due course.” His overriding feeling, as he counted down the hours, was “curiosity — what it’s going to be like on the day”.

At least three Britons have returned from loved ones’ assisted deaths in Switzerland to face months of police investigation. No one has been prosecuted. Yet. Was Mr Whaley worried about the consequences for his wife? “No,” he said , bluntly. “What’s the point of worrying about things you can’t do anything about?” Besides, he added, “Ann can handle anything.”

For her part, Mrs Whaley could not dare to think of life after tomorrow. “I’ve put my emotions in a box. That box will open when it’s all over. Fifty- five years we’ve been together. I know it’s going to be awful, just so empty.” Her husband was only half-joking when he declared “an absolutely no blubbing” rule. His daughter has already broken it, when she looked up at the clock last Thursday, about 11am. “I just thought, gosh, this time next week”. . . She looked daunted. “That got me.”

Her father had no doubt he was doing the right thing and had the complete support of his family. “My children and grandchildren have their lives to lead. The waters will close and life will go on.

“The one thing that has worried me all along is leaving Ann because I’ve spent all my life protecting her. Now she’ll be without me but I know she’ll get through it.”

Q&A: In the eyes of the law, what is assisted suicide?
It is helping someone who wants to die to take his or her own life.

Is it illegal?
In the UK, under the Suicide Act 1961, it is not illegal to take your own life but it is a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment to help another to do so.

Is it the same as euthanasia? 
No — euthanasia, sometimes called “mercy killing”, is the putting to death of another person who may be suffering from a terminal or painful condition. It is regarded as murder or manslaughter under the law and carries a penalty up to life imprisonment.

Are there exceptions?

If a person dies because medical professionals withdraw life-sustaining treatment where this is regarded as in the patient’s best interests, then that is not illegal.

Has the law changed recently? 

Many campaigners and patients have called for a change in the law to allow assisted suicide, particularly since the Human Rights Act came into force in 2000. In one recent case, Tony Nicklinson went through the courts, seeking a change in the law on assisted suicide. It was decided that the issue was for parliament and not the courts. The Assisted Dying Bill was debated in 2015 but MPs rejected a change to the current position.

What attitude do prosecutors take?

The Crown Prosecution Service asks that several factors are taken into account, that make prosecution less likely, such as the suspect being “wholly motivated by compassion” and the victim having reached a “voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide”.

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