Retired NHS worker arrested after helping stranger die at Dignitas

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A retired teacher and NHS worker was arrested after travelling thousands of miles to help a stranger she had only met once end their life.

Sue Lawford accompanied Sharon Johnston, who was paralysed after a freak accident at home to Dignitas, Switzerland, believing she deserved to choose how she died.

Sharon’s accident could have happened to anyone. She had gone upstairs, and when she came back down, she lost her footing and crashed headfirst to the bottom.

From that moment onwards, she was paralysed, having fractured several bones in the top of her neck.

She was left with virtually no movement in her body, apart from some in one hand, which allowed her to operate a specially adapted wheelchair.

She was doubly incontinent and relied on carers four times a day.

Sharon, 60, spoke publicly four months before her death about how she planned to spend £14,000 to end her life at the Dignitas clinic.

She had no immediate family and therefore needed a chaperone to help her make the journey, reports Wales Online.

Sue did not know Sharon but was asked to help as a member of the campaign group My Death, My Decision, which is pressing for a change in the law around assisted dying.

Currently, British law says anyone who is said to have encouraged or assisted the suicide or attempted suicide of another person can be jailed for up to 14 years.

The 70-year-old, who lives in Cardiff, said that she has long been a supporter of assisted dying and a change in the law.

“I think it’s absolutely a matter of choice,” she said.

“Lots of people who get a diagnosis of a degenerative condition, they fear what they’re facing, take matters into their own hands, and think about suicide.

“That can go terribly wrong and make the situation worse. I’m not in any sense advocating suicide at all, I think it’s an absolute tragedy, and it’s devastating for family and friends.

“This medically assisted death is a completely different thing, in my view.

“I’m all for palliative care. I want palliative care to work for people for as long as possible, as long as people have struggled with their quality of life.

“But there does come a time, you know, in lots of cases, where people have had enough and want a humane and dignified and calm exit with their loved ones around them.

“That’s what that’s where the difficulty comes in with people having to coach Dignitas, not only because of the expense of it, but also you know, just the balkanization of it, you know, you should get to have access to this in your own home.

“With your loved ones around you. One of the doctors at Dignitas called it ‘outsourcing death’ and that’s what we do.”

After what Sue said was a “vigorous process” completed by Sharon, the pair – along with another woman who did not want to be identified – travelled to Switzerland on February 14, 2022.

Sue said that Sharon had gone through both mental and physical assessments to make sure she had capacity to decide to end her life.

“I think people sometimes sort of think, you know ‘oh you just go to Dignitas, you just hop on a plane, knock on the door and say ‘bump me off’, and it is not like that at all said Sue.

“It’s a very rigorous process of assessment, both physically, and mentally, you’ve got to have full capacity.

“They have to be absolutely sure that this is the right thing for the individual. And so it’s rigorous.”

Sue was first made aware of Sharon’s situation after she was featured in a BBC documentary.

Just over a week after it aired, she was contacted by the campaign group asking whether she would be a chaperone for the former landlady.

She said after days of consideration and thinking about what she would do in that situation she “couldn’t think of any good reason not to help.”

“As a campaigner, if I want to change the law, because I think the law is wrong how could I, hand on heart say, well actually, no, I’m not going to do anything about it. I believe that a change is overdue.”

The pair were in touch from October 2021 and met once before the trip to make sure her medical records were up to date and discuss what would happen.

“When eventually I spoke to her [Sharon], she said to me that the worst thing about the fall down the stairs that broke her neck was that it didn’t kill her.

“She said it would have been a kinder thing had she died then because she wasn’t living now.

“I only met her once before we actually went. But I never got the impression in my conversations over sort of messenger and FaceTime and things that she was depressed.

“To her, this was an entirely rational decision.

“She thought to herself that she could perhaps get her powered wheelchair up to a level crossing somewhere or tip herself into the sea. She really didn’t want to do that.

“She didn’t want other people to suffer the trauma of having to sort out the aftermath.

“She really thought it through. She always said she was very lucky to have some savings, so she could afford to make it happen.

“The one thing that was missing was somebody to go with her.”

Sue said that she was aware that chaperoning someone to end their life was considered a criminal offence with the potential of a lengthy jail sentence attached to it.

Despite this, while looking at the number of prosecutions in the UK for similar crimes, she decided it was a “calculated risk” and had the full support of her husband and son.

On February 14, 2022, Sharon set off from her home in Cardigan in a taxi, picking Sue up in Cardiff on the way as they travelled to Heathrow Airport.

It was on this journey that Sharon started receiving calls from the police asking about her whereabouts.

Sue believes Sharon’s carers, who visited her at home every day, reported her missing. 

“It was quite tense [ the journey]. Her carers would normally do their first call at around 7:30am and it wasn’t long after that the first phone call from the police came in. She just said, ‘I’m absolutely fine. I’m visiting friends in Cardiff.’

“About half an hour later, another call came from the police., with all these questions. And so of course for Sharon that was incredibly stressful. She thought we were going to be stopped on the M4. Then she had a call from social services asking too. By the time we got to Heathrow she was in quite a state.”

Sue said that Sharon’s carers had known about her plans to end her own life but did not know the date she intended to do it.

She said that the constant “harassment” of Sharon by police and social services made her frustrated.

“She had free will, she’d made this decision entirely on her own. Nobody had encouraged her to make this decision. She had come to the decision, completely rational. And yet here she was sort of being harassed and almost threatened with being stopped.”

They arrived in Dignitas at around 5pm in the evening and was assessed by a doctor and psychiatrist on whether she was capable of making a rational decision to end her own life.

Not long after settling into the facility, Sue said armed Swiss police arrived. “We couldn’t believe it. Dyfed Powys Police must’ve asked the swiss police to intervene.

“The Dignitas lawyer said this has never happened in the 18 years he worked there. You can imagine Sharon’s state of mind but we eventually settled down.”

The following morning Sharon ended her own life just after 9:30am. “As the doctor left after giving the medication he said ‘I wish you a pleasant journey’ which I thought was lovely,” said Sue.

After taking the medication Sharon died shortly after. “She took the medicine within a straw and within a minute perhaps she was asleep. But then she opened her eyes and said ‘this is a lovely feeling’ and then fell asleep again.

“I’ve described it as calm and it was beautiful, it was so peaceful, exactly what she wanted. It was a privilege to be there with her. I was quite upset because I thought under different circumstances we’d be good friends.

“She was a sweet, lovely, lady. I admired her resolve and her courage I really did.” Due to having no immediate family members in the UK Sharon decided to be cremated at Dignitas and have her ashes spread in the garden there.

Sue and the other chaperone had originally booked to get an evening flight back to the UK but changed it to an earlier one.

This was a fortunate choice for them as police were waiting for their arrival in the UK.

“But had we got the later flight, the police were in Heathrow ready to arrest us. Imagine coming through arrivals and seeing the police there. I don’t know what I would’ve done,” said Sue.

Instead, at 5.30am the following day, Sue and her husband were awoken by police officers at the door.

She said that, on the journey back from Dignitas, she had texted her husband to say that she was going to go to the police and give a statement about what she had participated in as she wanted to be “transparent”.

However, she didn’t have a chance to do that before she was arrested and put into the back of a police van.

“They [the police] read my rights and took me out to a van which had a cage in the back. I was locked in this cage.

“I expected to see a police car but no I was told to get into the cage which I thought was excessive,” she said.

“As I left, four officers came and said they were to search the house.

“My husband asked if they had a warrant and they said they didn’t need one.

“I later discovered that they don’t need one because the alleged crime I’ve committed is the same category as murder, or terrorism. Which is hard to believe.

“They took my laptop, my iPad, my phone, my passport, my driving license, and even my bus pass.”

Sue was kept in a cell at Cardiff Bay police station for 16 hours before being questioned by detectives from Dyfed-Powys Police for a further two hours.

She said that their process of arresting her was “heavy-handed” and “knee jerk”.

“I know of other people who have done accompaniments to Dignitas and not received as much of a phone call so why was this different? I’d love to understand why this heavy-handed approach was considered to be necessary. It was knee-jerk.

The latest figures from prosecutors suggested just four cases of assisted suicide have been prosecuted in the UK, with the majority not leading to charges.

“I kind of understand why the police needed to know what happened. So and that’s probably why I thought to myself I will go and make a statement. I’ll tell them what’s happened and so on. I want to be open and upfront about it. I didn’t feel I’ve done anything wrong. You know, this was purely an act of compassion on my part.”

Assisted dying has been decriminalised in several European countries, including Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands while a bill to legalise assisted dying has now been introduced in Scotland.

Even if the potential legalisation does happen in the UK, which would allow terminally ill adults to request assistance to end their own life, is passed, it will not apply to people like Sharon.

The Assisted Dying Bill proposes that only terminally ill patients with full mental capacity who are not expected to live more than six months would be eligible to apply for an assisted death.

Two independent doctors and a High Court judge would have to determine that the patient has come to the decision themselves, and has not been coerced and only then could they be prescribed lethal medication – which they’d have to take themselves.

The British Medical Association has now moved to a position of neutrality on Assisted Dying.

A BMA members’ survey in 2020 showed a majority of doctors (59%) would prefer a law inclusive of both the terminally ill and incurably suffering.

Sue is now talking about her and Sharon’s experience as she campaigns to change the law, not only around assisted dying generally, but to include people in similar positions to Sharon.

“The law is broken. It needs sorting out. It’s a complex process. And, rightly so. It’s not a decision that people should make lightly. But I think because of the rigorous checks and balances by the medical people involved, it’s, as safe as it can be, the safeguards are there.

“And I just think we need to sort of grow up about it really and have that conversation. And not be frightened to confront. There are issues of consent but we shouldn’t be sort of outsourcing death to another country. We should take responsibility.”

Despite the six-month investigation into Sue’s actions, she is still campaigning to change the law and said she would find it “very difficult” not to help another person in a similar position.

Dyfed-Powys Police have said that the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Sharon Johnston the matter has been closed.

“Would I do it again? I sincerely hope with all my heart I’m never asked the question.

“Because for the same reasons that I helped Sharon, despite the arrest and everything, it would be very difficult to say no.

“To have to experience it with the arrest and investigation, I certainly wouldn’t want to go through that again. No.”

A spokesperson for Dyfed-Powys Police said: “It is a criminal offence in the UK to encourage or assist in the suicide or attempted suicide of another person.

“The circumstances of such cases increase the risk of vulnerable people being exploited and others making financial gain.

“A thorough criminal investigation is required to establish the facts of each case, requiring action to secure evidence that may be lost as time passes and prevent opportunities to dispose of relevant evidence.

“Following such an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Sharon Johnston the matter has been closed.

“The two people who were arrested as part of this investigation have been told they will face no further action.”

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