May 25, 2004
A woman severely ill with multiple sclerosis has won the right to prevent local authority carers intervening to save her life.
The former teacher in her 50s, who wishes to be known only as Mrs C, has debilitating symptoms which leave her active for only one hour a day.
She made a living will expressly refusing all life-prolonging treatment when she realised her condition would deteriorate to the point where she was entirely dependent on carers.
Mrs C considers the document as the only legal alternative to euthanasia.
Although doctors and nurses have previously been advised by NHS lawyers to accede to living wills, it is the first known case to involve non-medical staff.
Mrs C, who taught literature and is a lover of classical music, informed Durham county council of her decision that she should be left to die.
She told her carers they must not resuscitate her if she has a heart attack or administer the Heimlich manoeuvre should she begin to choke, which often happens in later stages of MS.
"The care workers agreed to comply with the request and many said they would do the same if they were in my situation," said Mrs C.
"If assisted suicide were legal, and someone was allowed to help me die, then I would prefer to continue living for as long as it was bearable.
"At the moment, however, there is no such merciful law. I feel I have to take what opportunity I can to escape the last part of this illness.
"I want them to let me choke if that is the only option I have. I know my death is going to be very hard and very horrible but society does not let me die in a humane manner."
Mrs C discovered last August that one carer was instructed by her manager 10 months ago to ignore her wishes, over fears that it could lead to accusations of neglect and ultimately manslaughter charges.
When Mrs C sought clarification, Durham social services wrote stating that there was no law to back living wills or advance directives.
After a nine-month battle, with Mrs C being supported by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and the prospect of a judicial review, the county council has agreed to respect her position.
Mrs C said: "Social services departments need to have a policy on respecting valid living wills."
Her living will was signed by her doctor and two witnesses and copies were deposited with her GP and solicitor. It named her husband as her proxy if she were unable to communicate her wishes.
She had been "shocked and outraged" at the prospect of being subjected to the Heimlich manoeuvre against her wishes.
"On many days being touched, let alone being manhandled, can be extremely painful," Mrs C said.
"The idea that someone could be yanking me out of my chair, slapping my back or manipulating my body, causing excruciating pain in an attempt to 'save my life' shocked and outraged me."
Durham social services department has told her it would be inappropriate for its staff not to seek treatment for somebody urgently requiring medical assistance.
A county council spokesman said in the event of Mrs C choking, its care workers would not administer first aid but would call the emergency services.
"Our view is that having made a living will and having expressed her wishes then those wishes will be respected," he added.
Mark Slattery, spokesman for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, described
the outcome as "a pleasing result". He hoped it would lead to the council
adopting it as policy.
Copyright © 2004, Telegraph Group Limited