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Kent women fighting to change assisted dying laws after seeing loved ones suffer

Would you help a loved one take their own life? That was the question facing Sandra Barclay when her husband's condition continued to worsen and he asked her to take him to Dignitas in Switzerland.

Sandra is one of three Kent women we spoke to who, after enduring traumatic experiences, are fighting for the laws on assisted dying to be changed...

KMTV spoke to the people backing the campaign

'I drove my husband 500 miles so he could end his life'

Sandra Barclay met Andrew when she was 18, and he just 16.

They married and travelled the world together, before having a son and moving to Hawkinge, near Folkestone.

But their lives were to change forever when in 1992 Andrew was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“Andrew had always been full of life, and he dealt with it extremely well,” said Sandra, 70.

Sandra is drawing attention for the law to change on assisted dying. Picture: Paul Amos
Sandra is drawing attention for the law to change on assisted dying. Picture: Paul Amos

“But he said to me when he was diagnosed, ‘if this gets really bad, I’m not hanging around’. And I knew then exactly what he meant.”

The MS began in his feet, before moving up to his legs and waist.

But by 2013, 24 years into his battle, the condition had ravaged his body and was affecting his bowel, bladder, walking, and eventually his sight, preventing him from driving.

“He just really had no quality of life,” said Sandra. “He said, ‘Sand, I can’t carry on like this’.”

The couple sat down with their son, David, and discussed Andrew’s wish to end his life.

“Andrew has always been very honest. So we knew it was the thing for him to do,” she said.

In 2014, the family took a trip to Ephesus - an ancient Greek city in Turkey Andrew had always dreamed of visiting.

But he was unable to access the ruins, which are set in rugged countryside, and instead had to view them from a distance.

“When we got back home he said, ‘I’m going to start the procedure’,” said Sandra.

Andrew, a former Met police officer, contacted assisted dying organisation Dignitas and began what would be a 13-month ordeal of providing documents and medical history.

The non-profit firm also required independent reports from two Swiss doctors.

“They need to know so much,” said Sandra. “It was all taking time.

“Andrew was really worried he was going to lose the strength in his arms and upper body, because when you go to Dignitas nobody can help you take the drink. You have to administer it yourself.”

Andrew was so concerned about this that, unbeknown to his wife, he bought drugs online from America that would help him to end his life in case he could not make it to Dignitas.

“I found a screwed-up receipt from Western Union for $500 and when I challenged Andrew he told me what he’d done,” said Sandra.

Sandra Barclay with her late husband Andrew, on the ferry at the start of their journey to Switzerland. Picture: Sandra Barclay
Sandra Barclay with her late husband Andrew, on the ferry at the start of their journey to Switzerland. Picture: Sandra Barclay

“Then we realised it was a scam. They never sent the drugs, they just cashed the money.

“So I phoned our local police, and they sent two officers around to interview us.

“We’ve always been very honest. We explained everything to them, and they said ‘I’m really sorry for the situation you’re in’. They knew we were going to Dignitas.”

Those who help another person die can face up to 14 years in prison in the UK. But Sandra says she was never investigated by police, despite informing them of their plans.

The Barclays paid £10,000 to Dignitas to end Andrew’s life.

“Then we had our travel expenses and everything,” said Sandra. “We were lucky enough to be able to afford to pay that. Lots of people can’t.

“I really was in a dreadful state, but I put on a brave face.It was a job we knew we had to do.

“We spoke about literally everything. I’d done my grieving really, before I went.”

As Andrew, then aged 65, had a stoma bag, he was unable to travel by plane to Switzerland.

"But he said to me when he was diagnosed, ‘if this gets really bad, I’m not hanging around’. And I knew then exactly what he meant...”

So in early December 2016, shortly before Christmas, Sandra drove him the 500-mile journey to Dignitas.

“As strange as it may seem, we did enjoy ourselves on the journey over,” she said.

On December 8, 2016, the couple had breakfast in their hotel near Zurich, before driving to Dignitas - which Sandra describes as “a pretty little bungalow building” decorated to feel like a house.

“We went in and had coffee, and spoke to a man and a woman called ‘befrienders’,” she recalled.

“We sat at a table in a dining room and had more things to sign, and coffee and cakes.

“Andrew had a coffee and a cigarette in the garden. It was a beautiful day - a lovely blue sky.

“When he finished we went back inside. One of the befrienders said, ‘you don’t have to do it right away, you can come back tomorrow’.

“But Andrew said, ‘no, I’ll do it at midday, but until then I’d like to go back into the garden to have another cigarette and coffee’.”

Sandra Barclay with her late husband Andrew, by a lake in Geneva. Picture: Sandra Barclay
Sandra Barclay with her late husband Andrew, by a lake in Geneva. Picture: Sandra Barclay

Patients are allowed to choose where they take a drug that causes death by respiratory arrest.

Andrew chose to sit on a sofa in the living room area, and Sandra sat on a chair in front of him.

“We said our goodbyes. I said, ‘bye Andrew, I’ll always love you’. He was still making us laugh, right until the end.

“They came in with the drug and said, ‘we have to stay with you to make sure you take it all’. Then they said, ‘if you want us, we’ll be in the kitchen’.

“Andrew said the drug wasn’t working. But his words were slurred.

“I couldn’t cry any more. I’d done all my crying.

“I stayed with him and held his hand and I knew he was slipping away.

“I’d already said ‘I will stay with you after you’ve gone and I will kiss you again, but when you’re cold...I want to remember you as you were in life’.

“He looked so peaceful - he looked like he would some evenings watching the TV, when he’d fall asleep.

“I couldn’t cry any more. I’d done all my crying..."

“I kissed him, and said I loved him. Then I left. I didn’t want to go back to the hotel. They pointed me in the direction of a very pretty park.

“I parked up and walked around the lake and saw the birds. That was the Thursday afternoon. I came back on the Friday morning.”

Andrew is one of an estimated 350 Britons who have ended their lives at Dignitas.

In the few years that have passed since his death, Sandra has joined the Dignity in Dying campaign group and fought fiercely for the law to be changed in the UK. She has appeared on ITV’s This Morning and spoke in the House of Commons this summer as part of a major debate by MPs on the subject of assisted dying.

“We make all our other choices through life - when we get married, when we have children,” she said. “Why can’t you choose when you die?

“Andrew was a wonderful man. He was my best friend and we loved each other. It was a great wrench.

“Everybody should be able to have the choice to end their life in their own home.

“I never dwell on the sad things when there are so many lovely memories of Andrew.

“I’m very positive and I have a goal: I want to change the law.”

‘Dad knew what was coming so ended it all’

Suzanne Jee
Suzanne Jee

Suzanne Jee joined the fight to legalise assisted dying after her father’s suicide following a brutal battle with oesophageal cancer.

Now, in a cruel twist of fate, she has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, bringing Dignity in Dying’s cause even closer to home.

Suzanne was in her late 20s when her dad, dental surgeon George Drury, received his diagnosis.

He underwent a major operation, but the illness sadly spread to his spine.

“He was in a tremendous amount of pain - painkillers simply didn’t work,” recalls Suzanne, of Sevenoaks Weald.

“He couldn’t sleep.”

One day, the battle became too much for her father and, at the age of just 60, he took his own life.

Suzanne Jee with her dad
Suzanne Jee with her dad

“It made me feel very angry, that he had to die alone,” said Suzanne, who is in her 70s.

“But he knew what the end of his life would be like. He knew it would be pretty dreadful.

“He said he really couldn’t stand to go through the last throes of terminal illness.

“Although I was horrified he felt he had to do it, I did understand.

“Because of my nursing background, I’d seen how much pain people can go through at the end of their lives.

“A lot of my patients who were terminally ill said they just wanted to end their suffering.”

Suzanne has been campaigning with the Dignity in Dying’s West Kent group for about three years.

About a year ago, she was diagnosed with an incurable bone marrow cancer.

Suzanne Jee at a rally outside Parliament earlier this year, with a placard featuring a photo of her dad
Suzanne Jee at a rally outside Parliament earlier this year, with a placard featuring a photo of her dad

“So far I’m feeling quite well,” she said. “It’s fairly stable so I’m not intending to shuffle off any time soon. But it focuses one’s mind on what will I do myself, at the end of my life.

“Like most people who go to Switzerland, I don’t want to end my life. But if it gets to the stage where all the quality of life has gone and I’m suffering terribly with pain, then if the law doesn’t change here, I definitely would go.

“My husband and I talk about it freely, and my son also knows what the plan is.

“But I’m hoping I won’t have to go.”

Suzanne rejects the argument that legalising assisted dying would be a “slippery slope”.

“People say, ‘oh well the vulnerable will be affected by this and you’ll be bumping off great aunt Agnes because you want her money’, but that’s not the case,” she said.

“The law would say you need the signature of two doctors and a High Court judge. And you have to be mentally competent.

“It’s been law in Oregon for 22 years, and they’ve never had any problems.

“It’s not for everyone, but I think it should be available for those in intolerable pain who want to have a dignified, kind of comfortable death with their family and friends around them.”

‘The doctor asked him what he could do - he replied ‘shoot me’’

Christine Young had to watch her dad die a painful death after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She is now a member of Dignity in Dying Picture: Andy Jones
Christine Young had to watch her dad die a painful death after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She is now a member of Dignity in Dying Picture: Andy Jones

A woman whose father begged her to “kill him” while he suffered from pancreatic cancer is also among those calling for change.

Christine Young, a mum-of-two from Whitstable, joined the campaign after her father’s traumatic death.

Don, 90, had pancreatic cancer and other severe health issues, and his condition deteriorated after his wife died in 2013.

“My dad was a very brave man,” said Christine, 69.

“He was in extreme pain. The morphine simply wasn’t enough.

Christine Young is now a member of Dignity in Dying, campaigning for the law to change Picture: Andy Jones
Christine Young is now a member of Dignity in Dying, campaigning for the law to change Picture: Andy Jones

“He was bedridden for the last six weeks of his life and would hallucinate from the pain relief - he’d think the room was on fire.

“We had a fantastic GP and support from Macmillan nurses and district nurses, but my dad was still suffering.

“About a month before he died, he asked me to kill him.

“I couldn’t believe it - I was devastated.

“When his doctor asked if there was anything she could do, my dad replied, ‘shoot me’.”

Christine Young's father, Don Picture: Andy Jones
Christine Young's father, Don Picture: Andy Jones

After her father died, Christine says she “just felt I had to do something”.

“I will never get over his death,” she said.

“I joined the East Kent Dignity in Dying group because I believe there has to be a change in the law to allow terminally ill people like my dad to die on their own terms.

“Over 80% of the public supports a change in the law on assisted dying but our MPs are lagging behind. We must make this a reality here, and with your help we can.”

For confidential support on an emotional issue, call Samaritans on 116 123 at any time.

If you want to talk to someone confidentially, click here.

To keep up-to-date with all the latest developments with your local hospitals and other health stories, click here.

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