19 December 2019
Laura Henkel had just turned 90 when she died at the Pegasos Swiss Association clinic in Liestal, Switzerland on Thursday 19 December 2019.
While not terminally ill (and hence unable to use any existing VAD law in Australia), Laura had always said she wanted to end her life on her own terms. The decision was hers alone.
I have a strong body and am very heathy for my age. It is thus very likely that I could live for a very long time. My mind, however, although clear at the moment, cannot be guaranteed. My mother, after all, did have dementia.
I have a fear of leaving it too late, when I no longer still have a clear mind to make important decisions for myself. It is a juggling act to know when to go, but I would rather go too soon than leave it too late.
Laura Henkel learned about Pegasos after the death in May 2018 of 104-year old Australian ecologist, Professor David Goodall. While David died at the Lifecircle clinic (in the same building), it is the exact same staff members of Lifecircle that have since set up their own group called Pegasos.
Laura’s daughter Cathy and her grand-daughter Sam (both film makers) have made a feature documentary about Laura’s decision-making process and, eventual, road to Switzerland (see below).
Laura, Cathy and Sam arrived in Basel a few days before Laura’s allotted VAD date on 19 December 2019. Philip Nitschke met them at the Zurich airport.
Laura had booked the family into a central hotel, which was right in the middle of the famous Basel Christmas markets. She was especially pleased with her view which looked out to an ancient church tower.
During her last days, Laura did some sight-seeing in and around Basel, in between meeting with the doctor that would ‘sign off’ her death. But, in reality, she seemed to have have lost of lust for life. She just wanted it over.
Her final meal was shared with the family, Philip Nitschke and Fiona Stewart. She remarked that she did not have much appetite but seemed to enjoy the company and conversation all the same.
Before she left Australia, Laura threw a ‘farewell do’. A final hurrah to say good-bye to her friends.
She also enjoyed considerable media attention. She wanted her trip (and her death) publicised. This 90-year old still had a lot to say as she told the Byron Echo:
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’s death at Pegasos was preceded by intimate moments with Cathy and Sam, followed by a sip of champagne. A first for a woman that did not drink.
For those listening from the ante-room, the three women could be heard laughing and loving as they created a poignant good-bye moment. With friends filming the good-bye, Sam and Cathy could devote 100% of their focus to Laura.
Laura died early afternoon from a Nembutal infusion. With a long-held fear of needles, she gave an audible ‘ouch’ as the canula was inserted.
As her breathing became slower and slower, so Cathy and Sam stayed on the bed with her, sobbing quietly with sadness (and relief).
Laura Henkel had got the death she wanted, surrounded by those she loved.
Her final words to her grand-daughter were: ‘I hope you make a good film …’
Media About Laura Henkel
Choosing my time to die a dignified death
Laura’s Choice Documentary Film
Laura’s Choice is currently available for 12 months (to 02/22) on ABC TV
For those outside Australia, use a VPN and go to: ABC iView or ABC TV Plus
Laura’s Choice will screen in Australia on ABC 1 TV on 14 & 21 April 2021.
Laura’s Choice is on Facebook
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