'Why I helped my wife to die'

A PENSIONER has told why he made the heartbreaking decision to help his terminally-ill wife take her own life - and revealed how he was prepared for the police to come for him after he “confessed” on television.

Elliot Furniss

A PENSIONER has told why he made the heartbreaking decision to help his terminally-ill wife take her own life - and revealed how he was prepared for the police to come for him after he “confessed” on television.

Barrie Sheldon, 77, from Worlingworth, near Framlingham, appeared on the BBC2 Newsnight programme last week as part of an investigation into assisted suicide.

He revealed had helped his wife Elizabeth, 50, to take her own life in 1982 as she dreaded feeling the full effects of the degenerative Huntington's Disease.


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The broadcast followed TV presenter Ray Gosling's arrest last week after he admitted on television that he had helped in the death of a lover, who was suffering from Aids.

Mr Sheldon said his wife Elizabeth was well aware of her plight, was in control of her actions and had completed a living will that ultimately helped her to end her life, something he felt was not highlighted in the broadcast.

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He said his wife had seen first-hand the traumatic and tragic long-term effects of Huntington's Disease and wanted to end her life at a time of her own choosing and he had agreed to help.

While working as a district nurse, she had assisted a patient suffering in the later stages of the illness a few years before her own symptoms had started to appear.

He said: “She wouldn't normally see a case like this, but she had. When she learned what she had it was only a few years previous that she had nursed this woman and she was determined not to let it take its course but to kill herself.”

The symptoms had started showing in 1977 but it was not until two years later that Mrs Sheldon discovered she had Huntington's - a disorder she had inherited from her mother, who also died from it.

He said: “She then faced this frightful situation of what would happen to her if she didn't take her own life while she was capable of it.

“In March 1982 she did it. We found a drug that they couldn't refuse to give to her, but by that time she couldn't count very well.

“I helped her by counting the number of tablets she would need to reach the amount suggested (for a fatal dose). She would go every week to get them and I would count them up, week by week.”

The couple, who were living in West London, agreed on a weekend when Mr Sheldon would go away for the night and his wife would consume the tablets necessary to end her life.

However, when he returned she was still alive but in agony and took another four days to die after being rushed to hospital in an ambulance.

Mr Sheldon said: “I couldn't allow them to treat her and just when the police were going to arrive her doctor came with her wallet and he produced the living will and they dropped her like a hot brick and didn't even give her basic nursing care for the first two days.

“The police were interested to know that I hadn't been in the house but didn't ask any more than that, so I didn't tell them.

“She knew what was going to happen if she didn't take her own life and she was desperate. She would often ask me 'have I deteriorated? Have I got much worse?'

“I can't imagine how she suffered in those years, knowing there was no way out for her if she didn't act.”

Mr Sheldon said he had a bag packed and ready in case the Metropolitan Police came for him following his television appearance.

Last night, a Metropolitan Police spokesman declined to comment on the matter, other than saying there was no police investigation ongoing at this time.

Mr Sheldon said that even now, 28 years on, he still had “unfinished business” and “smouldering anger” at society for making it so hard for his wife to take her own life with dignity.

Mr Sheldon, a retired water inspector, said he had been put in touch with the BBC through Dignity in Death, formerly known as both Exit and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, an organisation he fully supported.

He said: “Ever since my wife killed herself in 1982 they have kept me on their mailing list. Now, because things are building up with these new guidelines coming up, it's become more of a topic so I agreed to go on this and be filmed by a team from Newsnight.”

Mr Sheldon said a film crew spent nearly five hours at his home in Worlingworth, near Framlingham, but he felt a significant part of his story had been left out of the finished edit.

He said: “It was skewed to make it look as though my wife had killed herself because of the stress it was causing me. While it was causing me distress, she would have killed herself anyway.

“It rather skewed it that it didn't mention that she had seen it (the disease) for what it was.”

Huntington's Disease is an incurable neurodegenerative genetic disorder and symptoms normally become evident between the ages of 35 to 44.

It is triggered by chemical changes in the brain, leading to cells deteriorating at an accelerated rate that affects muscle coordination and some cognitive functions.

Almost everyone with Huntington's disease eventually exhibits similar physical symptoms, but the onset, progression and extent of cognitive and psychiatric symptoms vary significantly between individuals.

The disease is caused by a dominant mutation on either of the two copies of a gene called Huntingtin, which means any child of an affected parent has a 50% risk of inheriting the disease.

In rare situations where both parents have an affected gene, or either parent has two affected copies, this risk is greatly increased.

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