Hazel McHaffie

wheelchair racing

End of life planning

For personal reasons, time running out, end of life, setting one’s house in order, leaving clear instructions, tidying up loose ends … they’re all much in my thoughts this week. So an obituary jumped out and hit me between the eyes.

Marieke Vervoort. Belgian gold medal winner at the London 2012 Paralympic Games …

… ran the strap line. Followed by …

… who ended her life by euthanasia

Oh wow! Never seen it spelled out like this before. So why did this celebrity decide to end her life at the tender age of 40? (NB. A few details in the official obituary I have no means of verifying, so I can only repeat them on trust.)

Marieke Vervoort was born in Belgium, became a sporty child, and had ambitions to be a PE teacher. However, at the age of 14 she began to suffer repeated infections in her Achilles tendon. The eventual diagnosis? Reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a progressive disease which gradually crept up her body. The prognosis? Grim: tetraplegia. And it came with epileptic seizures and terrible pain; so bad indeed that she was often unable to sleep for more than 10 minutes a night. Imagine the toll of that little lot.

In spite of all this, Marieke fought back and has been acclaimed around the world. The list of her accomplishments is mind-blowing:
2006 – paratriathlon world champion
2007 – paratriathlon world champion
After this her condition worsened and she moved into wheelchair racing.
2012 – won gold medal in 100m sprint and silver in 200m at London Paralympics
2013 – set new European record in 200m and world records in 400m and 800m in Belgium
2013 – suffered a serious shoulder injury while racing, and was told by a doctor she would never return to her previous level. This made her even more determined to succeed.
2014 – won 200m and 1500m and 800m in Switzerland, setting three new world records
2014 – spilt boiling water on her legs after an epileptic fit while cooking – necessitating 4 months in hospital
2015 – won 100, 200 and 400m titles at the world championships in Doha
2016 – won silver medal in the 400m at the Rio Olympics after being violently sick for 30 hours and on a rehydration drip
2016 – won bronze in the 100m at the same games in spite of running a fever with an kidney infection at the time
2017 – paralysis reached her chest, vision deteriorated, finger function declined. She took up sky-diving in a vertical wind tunnel
September 2019 – fulfilled her wish to be driven around the Zolder race circuit in a Lamborghini Huracan
22 October 2019 – died by euthanasia in Belgium

A simple catalogue of her triumphs is wholly inadequate. The price for high achievements on the sporting field, even for the most physically able, is very steep. Here was a young woman coping with well-nigh impossible odds. Progressive paralysis, mind-altering levels of pain, terrible injuries. And still she came back fighting. What an indomitable spirit. The sheer grit and perseverance and endurance of arduous training and fitness building as well as competing, can only be dimly perceived.

But a ‘living hell’ was not on Marieke’s agenda of desirable goals. Aware of her prognosis and obvious deterioration, she signed up for euthanasia in 2008, giving her a trump card to hold in reserve. (NB. This is legal in Belgium.) Eleven years later she has finally played that ace. It would surely take a heart of stone to be unsympathetic to this courageous young woman’s decision. Interestingly, also this week, an interview with MP Sir Vince Cable suggested that the Assisted Dying Bill looks set for another hearing soon in this country. I wonder if Marieke Vervoort’s story will feature.

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