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Byron Shire
April 22, 2021

Choosing my time to die a dignified death

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Laura Henkel, who suffers through pain and deep exhaustion every day, passionately believes she should be given autonomy over how and when she dies. Photo supplied.

By Laura and her family

90-year-old Ballina woman, who does not qualify for either Victoria’s or the new Western Australian Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) laws, left Australia, on Saturday 15 December, for Switzerland to fulfil her wish to die with dignity and on her own terms.

Laura Henkel, who suffers through pain and deep exhaustion every day, passionately believes she should be given autonomy over how and when she dies.

Death under Australian laws

‘I feel I have had enough, and am quite ready to go. I have a strong body and am likely to live for a long time, just getting more and more unable to care for myself. I cannot rely on some debilitating disease to carry me away, and going into an aged care facility to endure pain and suffering to the bitter end is not a future I choose for myself.’

However, Laura Henkel isn’t eligible for the Victorian laws, or the ones soon to be passed in West Australia (where her family lives). After all, she’s not terminally ill. But Laura believes that old age is a terminal illness, and that she should also be given the choice to die with dignity

She says she doesn’t enjoy life anymore, her body is failing her, and the daily suffering will only continue to get worse. ‘Old age doesn’t have a cure – you can’t mend it like a broken bone, so at the moment, the only option for elderly people is to simply hope you don’t have too much pain until at some point you die.’

Laura is not interested in this way of ending her 90 colourful years on earth. Instead, she wants to die on her terms, with dignity, and with her family around her. She also enjoys the idea of ‘inviting people to a farewell do. Those close to you are then given the opportunity to say a last farewell, create some final memories and hopefully get more closure for themselves.’

Laura Henkel had her ‘farewell do’ on Saturday night at her home in Ballina, in the company of friends and her beloved daughter Cathy, and grand-daughter Sam Lara. Laura says she is doing it as much for them as for herself.

‘This is a kinder way for all families to deal with the inevitable death of those closest to them. This way, your life does not immediately, and usually most inconveniently, have to come to a standstill in an effort to absorb the shock of a parent’s death. Things may be planned in advance.’

In a detailed manifesto outlining why she’s chosen to go now, Ms Henkel writes ‘I must go while I am still able to make the journey and meet the requirements. It is impossible for anyone to say how long I will remain able. An accident can change everything overnight. Add to this the fact that there is nothing left on my bucket list. I am ready and happy to go.’

Laura Henkel says she would much rather have been able to do this in her home, instead of having to make a long 25-hour journey to Switzerland. She believes that there is an important conversation that needs to be had that people are avoiding.

‘I know from experience that film is a very powerful medium and I am therefore extremely lucky to have two filmmakers in my family. To this end, I have asked Cathy and Sam to make a film about end-of-life choices and the limited options available, by law, to those who want it. It needs exposure by someone dedicated enough to the cause to stand up and proclaim it and I am prepared to do just that.’

Cathy and Sam (both filmmakers) have agreed to Laura’s wishes and are currently filming a documentary, called Laura’s Choice, about her decision-making process over the last three years and their journey to Switzerland.

Not easy to accept

Cathy Henkel says ‘My mother’s decision has not been easy to accept, for me or my daughter, but I have come to see that it is perhaps the kindest, most dignified and graceful way to farewell a parent, and I’m grateful for the chance to say goodbye in this way.’

The three generations of women flew out of Australia on Saturday. Their trip will culminate in Laura’s death at the new Pegasos Swiss Association clinic in Basel, Switzerland, on 19 December.

Ms Henkel learned about Pegasos after hearing the story of 104-year old West Australian Professor David Goodall on Australian TV in 2018. Laura Henkel then sought out Dr Philip Nitschke of Exit International and the same team who helped David Goodall.

The Swiss professionals who helped Professor Goodall now operate their own organisation, which is housed in the same building in Basel as the Lifecircle service visited by the Professor.

Laura Henkel’s plea for more end-of-life choices for elderly Australians comes at the same time that Pegasos has opened its first international office in Melbourne.

According to Dr Philip Nitschke, Pegasos opened an office in Melbourne in response to the demand by non-terminally ill, elderly Australians. The Pegasos office, in Melbourne’s CBD will be staffed by Damian Flowers, the brother of Angelique Flowers; an ill 30yr old who made an impassioned plea in 2008 to then Prime Minister Rudd.

Many elderly Victorians fail to qualify for help to die under Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act. Instead, they are being forced to travel to the other side of the world where the criteria is not about how sick you are, but about whether you have the decision-making capacity to decide when it is your time to go.

Laura says ‘My choice allows me to go to sleep in peaceful surroundings, with my family around me at the end, while I am still able to say thank you for all they have done for me.’

Dr Philip Nitschke will meet Laura Henkel, daughter Cathy Henkel and granddaughter Sam Lara on their arrival in Zurich on Sunday 15 December, and take them to Basel, before Laura dies on the following Thursday.

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12 COMMENTS

    • Why should it be only for “folk of a certain age”? Mental suffering that has gone on for years can be just as debilitating if not more so.

  1. Australia has taken their first step with euthanasia laws and now needs to progress further to legally allow its citizens to make end of life choices regardless of their physical capacity.

  2. I have had to bring several dogs to be put out of their misery at the veterinarian. We are able to spare them suffering and pain, and give them very peaceful easy deaths, but not allowed to make that choice for ourselves in most countries. I believe it is religion that people use to impose restrictions on those of us who think we should have a choice to die a humane death when we are near the end of our life and losing any quality of life, due to pain or disability. I hope this changes in the future, and the right to control one’s life is no longer denied to us, especially if we are of sound mind and our peaceful death will not harm others. By the time many of us are in are ’90s, or even 80’s we will likely have lost many of our friends, and our families can get by without us.

  3. Not everyone who opposes physician assisted suicide/euthanasia is religious. Do an Internet search for Kevin Yuill and Liz Carr, both atheists from the UK, who both firmly oppose both means of premature death.

    And there is *always* meaning in life is one chooses to find it, regardless of age or disability. One can always encourage others, even if done online. A resident of a nursing home or an assisted living facility can teach staff how to treat people with kindness and compassion. Life is *not* about me, myself, and I.

    • Sue, the problem is totally not whether “there is always meaning in life”! Not all the people choose euthanasia because they have lost every meaning to live. Some (if not most) of these people are suffering daily because of incurable health problems that are slowly consuming their bodies. A health problem often doesn’t mean that you sit happily on your sofa, enjoy your time with relatives at home, until one day you switch off. It can be physical pain every single day and you try to endure it, thinking that maybe tomorrow it will be less painful and you will be granted a few hours of peace. It is something that restricts your freedoms (moving, eating, …), otherwise the pain will get more intense.
      Why should these people be denied the right to end their life in a more comfortable way, instead of being invalidated for years and living with pain every remaining day of their life? If you have not experienced that, you don’t know what it means. And it’s cruel to impose to such people a choice that we have made, if we have never experienced a similar condition. Before saying “I don’t approve euthanasia”, one should be given the same physical pain of these people; after months of suffering, I’m sure the answer will be different.

  4. My body my choice. I’ve suffered since the age of 13 with joints that dislocate. Traumatic to say the least & I also developed severe PTSD. I’ve lived a full & interesting life & I’m not ready to EXIT yet. I want to put into place my end of life choices so I can have a wonderful peaceful death … thank you for reading my comment.

  5. What a wonderful compassionate and rational story about Laura and her death. As an ex critical care nurse who has a deep belief in God I fully support the right of people to die when they truly believe life is intolerable. There is no way a loving God would expect people to unnecessarily suffer when relief is possible. We were created to strive for knowledge and understanding and given the free will to use that knowledge, and associated skills, for the benefit of ALL living beings, including Humans. This includes, not only enabling the best life possible, but also providing the means for a peaceful, as painless as possible, and dignified death. I will be demanding the right to die under such circumstances and at a time of my choice. That is all I ask – let me at least have that control when the time comes. Those who do not support death by assisted suicide or euthanasia do not have to chose this way to die. It is all about personal choice. We can’t chose not to die, but we should be able chose how we die. Paul Crockford, Melbourne, Australia.

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