‘While I am healthy now, I’d like to have a little lethal concoction waiting for the right moment’: Prue Leith on the right to die

<span>Prue Leith, 84: ‘I’m really hopeful. It feels as if the mood has changed.’</span><span>Photograph: Gareth Iwan Jones/The Guardian</span>
Prue Leith, 84: ‘I’m really hopeful. It feels as if the mood has changed.’Photograph: Gareth Iwan Jones/The Guardian

Many people have a vision that they’re going to die a good death because they’ve seen it on telly. A patient lies in bed, with their nearest and dearest. Holding hands. Mozart playing, before they drift into a deep sleep.

Death, for most, is not like that at all. My first husband had a horrible death. He didn’t want to die because he thought he should live for my sake and the children. But he had emphysema. Sometimes he would not be able to breathe and doctors would have to get him on a trolley to get to the right equipment. It was incredibly upsetting. We’d run down the corridor and he’d try to grab my hand. Once he put my thumb in his mouth and sucked it like a child with a dummy. Doctors shoved me out of the way and took him to a defibrillator. The next day I went back to the hospital and he was fine. I thought, how many times will we have to go through this?

I’m definitely one of those boring women who think they ought to interfere; always wanting to make things better. But the fact is, we are not coping well. There’s no question that palliative care should be much better. It could be the solution for most of the people who want to die, that if you could take away the pain and the horrible death, a lot of them wouldn’t want to die. But some do. They’ve had enough of this life and they want out. My feeling is that it should be their death, their decision.

My brother David had terminal bone cancer and desperately wanted to die. Fortunately, it was just three weeks of utter agony. But those weeks were ones during which he should have relaxed and said goodbye to family.

What used to happen frequently is that doctors would give dying patients a bit too much morphine, with a nod and a wink from the family. Because the end was coming and they could shorten it like you would for a dog, just to limit the suffering. But they wouldn’t do that in the hospital. It was almost farcical. The consultant said to me, “You do realise that morphine is addictive?” I said, “I don’t care if he is as high as a kite, he has weeks to live. What has addiction got to do with anything right now?” They were not compassionate.

An ageing population means many more people every year are having to face this awful choice

When he was at home, nurses who were under the hospital’s jurisdiction would come and give him his drugs every four hours. They said they had patients who begged them to get decent enough drugs to knock the pain on the head, but since [serial killer and GP Harold] Shipman, no nurse or consultant wants to ruin their life with a suspension. Why can’t we pass a law that makes it much more open, transparent?

We often talk about the three Ss. There’s suffering: you can put up with it, put a brave face on it, have a horrible time. There’s Switzerland, which is really expensive and a lot of people don’t want to go to an industrial estate somewhere outside Zurich to die with total strangers. Then the third option is suicide. Suicide doesn’t always work and is horrible for the family.

The health and social care committee recently published its findings after studying overseas examples of jurisdictions that have assisted dying. Responding, Esther Rantzen told the BBC it showed there was no evidence of the “slippery slope that so many are worried about”. For example, in Oregon, a state that has sanctioned assisted dying for 26 years, there has never been a case of a family saying, “My loved one was coerced or paid to die.” Of course, it’s difficult to prove, because the people are dead. But the fact is, there’s no evidence.

There is an argument that if you have something like motor neurone disease, dementia or Parkinson’s disease, that you can have an absolutely miserable life, but not have a prognosis of death within a year because it could take you 15 years to die. The fact of the law is that it will always be slightly discriminatory, but I think we have to start very narrowly and it should happen after a good look at what everybody else has done.

I’m really hopeful. It feels as if the mood has changed – even among politicians and medics. It is urgent that we look at this now. Not least because I am getting older! But also because we are an ageing population, where pensioners outnumber children. This means many more people every year are having to face this awful choice. While I am healthy at the moment, I’d very much like to have a little lethal concoction sitting in a safe waiting for the right moment. And I’d rather it was legal.

As told to Harriet Gibsone