Garret Ahern’s wife, Vicky Janssens died on April 21st 2023 by assisted death in Belgium. We met with Garret (51) who kindly and bravely shared his story with us. First thing he told us was: “She would really want me to be here today.”
Garret met his wife, Vicky, six years ago. Vicky was a double mastectomy survivor at that stage. Vicky was a lecturer at University College Cork, and Garret was a Union representative. He also volunteered with Suicide Prevention Group in Limerick and with Red Cross. They both shared a humanist philosophical belief system.
Two weeks after they met, Vicky noticed a lump in her neck. Her cancer metastasized from breast to lymph nodes. This was the beginning of their 5-year roller coaster journey.
At the end of last year, Vicky’s condition deteriorated, she was feeling sick, was not able to keep food down. She initially refused chemotherapy as she had been on it before and was put on medication. However, a consultant medical oncologist at Cork University Hospital, urged her to start chemotherapy treatment and Vicky agreed. The treatment lasted three weeks, and it was a difficult experience. Vicky would get infusion on a Friday, then be sick the whole weekend, she would be a bit better on Monday and Tuesday, however, she would start dreading the following infusion and Wednesday and Thursday were filled with fear. Vicky stopped her chemotherapy treatment, and in Garret’s words, it felt then as if they were dropped by the hospital as a result. In general, Garret found the conditions his wife witnessed on admission to the public care system of the HSE shocking and appalling. He described them as barbarous and bereft of any dignity for any of the patients involved. This was a motivating factor for Vicky not wanting to end up in such a system.
Vicky was put on pain control, morphine, however, that proved not to be very effective. Again, Garret’s experience of the palliative care system did not seem fit for service in terms of offering symptom management, and perhaps more importantly, pain relief for his wife.
By then, Vicky then felt that she could not take it anymore and decided to take an overdose. She asked Garret to overview the process. At this stage, Vicky was not able to walk or eat, and her pain was getting worse and worse. She knew there was no future, no hope, the cancer had spread also to her lungs, her whole body.
Garret takes integrity very seriously, but he agreed to help her. Vicky took two bottles of morphine and sleeping pills, and drifted into a coma-like sleep, with Garret monitoring her vitals. After a few hours, he realised that while she was deteriorating, she was not going to die, and would end up with brain damage instead. Garret gave her two rescue breaths and called an ambulance.
Vicky was then put in the psychiatric ward, as she was believed to have mental health issues. She did not. She knew that her time was over, and wanted to have control over her death. Garret pointed out how the health system is overmedicalized, taking away a person’s dignity, and instead sedating them so they are not the same person anymore.
Vicky was subsequently assessed by a psychiatrist, who concluded that Vicky indeed did not have any mental health issues. She was asked, if her pain was taken away, would she want to live, and she said yes.
Vicky researched euthanasia in Belgium. It was very difficult, the painful decision of his wife to end her own life by assisted dying in Belgium. Many heart-rending conversations were had on this subject. The finality of it. The association consequences of such a decision. Yet, ultimately, his wife felt like it was her only option.
In order to be considered for assisted dying in Belgium, it is required to have a dwelling residence and a GP there. Although Vicky was a Belgian citizen, she had lived in Ireland for a long time and no longer had a residence in Belgium. A fellow cancer patient allowed Vicky to register at her residence, and after travelling to Belgium with Garret, Vicky had several consultations with a GP there. She continued to be very sick, unable to eat and drink, and did not want any more intervention at this point. She asked Garret not to intervene if anything happened.
On the final day, Vicky and Garret went to Vicky’s friend’s house with a lovely garden full of flowers. She was first administered an IV drip of general anaesthetics by a palliative care nurse. Garret was then asked whether to proceed and after he consented, Vicky was given muscle relaxant by the GP. She died within a few seconds. Garret said it was the most peaceful experience for her, she was surrounded by friends, looking out at the garden. It was the most dignified passing Garret had ever witnessed. At no stage did he hesitate, had any doubts, or considered whether not to proceed. He knew this was what Vicky had wanted.
Yet, Garret describes how the process was made more difficult as it took place in a foreign country.
The travel to Belgium was recognised by Garret as challenging. His wife leaving her home for the last time, leaving her daughter for the last time. These are paramount among the losses of his wife. The physical pain involved, and for Garret, as her husband, the emotional pain in taking his beloved wife on that final journey.
Belgium itself was demanding, not speaking the language and not knowing what was going on during the medical consultations. Being completely isolated from his entire support system. Garret’s family, his friends were all in Ireland, and he had to do this final act alone. To describe it as heartbreaking would be too kind to the feelings. To try and sum it up, it was a complete loneliness and isolation. Garret felt it had significantly damaged his emotional wellbeing.
And that loneliness and isolation continued, as after his wife’s death, he was alone. Alone in a strange place, with no love and support around him. The suffering was intolerable. On top of that, a set of grieving and funeral traditions that were so unlike what is done in Ireland. Garret felt that the Irish people perform their grief at dying in a more open way.
Had Vicky been allowed to avail of medical assisted dying in Ireland, Garret would have had his family and friends around him to support him. Vicky had lived in Ireland for 20 years, and she had many friends who were not able to attend the funeral or help in any way either. Her daughter, Garret’s stepdaughter, who was 16, had also stayed in Ireland. All this added to an already incredibly hard situation.
Two weeks after Vicky passing away, they held a humanist funeral in Ireland. It was a completely different experience to the one in Belgium. It was a ceremony filled with solidarity, love, poems and songs.
The experience as a whole was incredibly challenging, and has left Garret and his family damaged. His darling wife’s death was inevitable. Indeed, he believes, she would most certainly be dead by now, her condition and suffering were too advanced. Has she been able to die with the same degree of dignity in Ireland, in her home, with her friends around her, the ordeal Garret and his family suffered would be much less.