Distinguished clarinettist travels to Switzerland to end her life

September 21, 2009

From the Sunday Times, 20 September 2009

Before she took her own life, Pamela Weston wrote a letter explaining her reasons for ending it all. “There is nothing else I want to do. Nothing else I can do. I’m too weak, too tired. I’ve had a wonderful, happy life. Now it’s over.”

The 87-year-old distinguished classical musician and writer, who in her prime performed at the Festival Hall and for Clement Attlee at No 10 Downing Street, is the latest Briton to commit assisted suicide. She died on September 9 at the Swiss clinic, Dignitas.

News of her death comes as the director of public prosecutions (DPP) prepares to issue legal guidelines on assisted suicide in England and Wales. They are expected to remove the threat of prosecution from anyone who compassionately assists a terminally ill or chronically disabled person to commit suicide. It will remain an offence to influence them.

Until now, friends and families of those who opt for assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic have been stuck in a legal quagmire — risking jail for helping loved ones to end their life, although no prosecutions have been brought.

The death of Dan James, the England under-16 rugby player who ended his life at Dignitas last year, aged just 23, after he was paralysed in an accident on the rugby field, brought the issue of assisted suicide to a head. It was followed by the legal battle fought by Debbie Purdy, 46, who has progressive multiple sclerosis, to ensure her husband, Omar Puente, will not face prison if he accompanies her to Dignitas.

The law lords ordered the DPP to set out the circumstances under which someone may be prosecuted for assisting someone to die.

Two British police forces are investigating suspected assisted suicides. In both cases friends or relatives have been arrested on suspicion of assisting the death and have been released on bail.

Cari Loder, 48, an academic who pioneered a treatment for multiple sclerosis and suffered from it, killed herself at her Surrey home by inhaling helium she ordered over the internet.

Detectives believe Loder may have received help and arrested a 70-year-old neighbour soon after her death on June 8. The man was later released on bail, extended until November. Campaigners believe the extension is to allow the new guidelines to be taken into account.

Dr Michael Irwin, a retired GP from Surrey, arrested in July for helping a man travel to Dignitas and paying £1,000 towards the fees of his suicide, has also had his bail extended until November.

Irwin accompanied Raymond Cutkelvin Rees, 58, from east London, to his death in Switzerland in February 2007. Rees’s civil partner, Alan Cutkelvin Rees, also present at the death, was arrested in July by Hackney police. He, too, has had his bail extended.

Like James, Weston was not suffering from a terminal illness. She had myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome. The condition is controversial because many doctors believe it has a psychological rather than physical cause.

Weston had also suffered four heart attacks in two years. She had begun to find it difficult to eat and to carry on her career as a writer. As well as being an accomplished clarinettist she wrote about the clarinet for classical music journals.

In a final letter, written just days before she travelled to Switzerland, and released last night to The Sunday Times, she explained her reasons for ending her life. “I know there is nothing else I want to do. I have started stumbling over my words and I am losing my appetite. I have to push myself to eat,” she said. “I can no longer write professionally. I am too weak, too tired.”

She travelled to Zurich by air ambulance earlier this month and stayed in a hotel. She was visited by a Swiss doctor who declared she was mentally competent and had made up her mind to end her life. Then she took a fatal dose of barbiturates.

Weston never married and had no children but said in her letter she had “some wonderful friends who support what I am doing”. Some are believed to have travelled with her to Dignitas. Last night, one said: “Pamela told me what it was like, having ME, and I asked her how she managed. She said, ‘Being a musician requires tremendous discipline. I suppose that’s how I’ve lasted so long. You have to make the best of it. You have to have courage.’ She had courage to the end.”

Weston called for more research into finding a cure for ME. “A lot of people still see it as a psychological disease. In my case, it’s entirely physical. The trouble is, ME is almost totally invisible to others.”

Sir Peter Spencer, chief executive of Action for ME, a charity, said sufferers could hope for a recovery or have a good quality of life.

In her letter, Weston said she “wouldn’t advise anyone to do what I’m doing. But I’m certain it is right for me”. She made a plea for Britain to adopt the Swiss example. “I hope assisted suicide will come to England. It could be abused but, from my experience, it doesn’t seem to be abused in Switzerland.”

I'm writing this in September 2009. I have decided to go to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland to commit assisted suicide.

My story starts in August 1991. I was at a concert in the Albert Hall when a friend kissed me. Afterwards, she said she thought she might be going down with a cold. In fact, it was flu. She got better. I didn’t – perhaps because of my age. I was 70.

I was wretchedly ill for about a fortnight. I had a young doctor at the time who was very inexperienced and didn’t know what to do with me, so I changed to another at the Royal Free Hospital in London. He diagnosed Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.).

He prescribed injections once a month for six months. He said the drugs only suited some people and might not help. They didn’t.

My symptoms have been the same all along and have been getting worse all the time. I have very bad sneezing attacks every few days, which cause sinus problems and sore eyes. My head feels awful and I'm tired all the time. I feel dizzy when I stand. I have also had four heart attacks in the past two years.

I can no longer write professionally any more. There is nothing else I want to do. Nothing else I can do. I am too weak, too tired.

But I have had a happy life. I was born on 17 October 1921 in London and grew up loving music. My mother was an amateur violinist and I played piano. I left school at 16 with two O levels. I was due to study piano and singing at Dresden but war broke out.

When I was 20 I heard Frederick Thurston, one of Britain's greatest clarinetists, play a Mozart concerto on the radio. So inspiring! The finest piece of classical music ever written.

My father had gone back into the army as a doctor and we were in Bovingdon Camp in Dorset. When I found out that the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra were performing with Frederick Thurston, my mother and I dashed down there. I went straight into the Artists' room to find him. “I love your playing,” I told him. “Can I please learn from you?”

I did a two-year graduate course at the Royal Academy of Music before I managed to get a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music. Thurston wasn’t on the staff but he lived in Barnes, in west London, and he agreed to teach me privately. Once he had to cut short a lesson to go to the Albert Hall to play in the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a Promenade Concert. He bundled me on to an open-top bus and gave me the rest of the lesson in the Artists’ room when we got there.

I loved the Proms. When I was a student I had a season ticket. We were living in Hampstead, north London, at the time. I used to cycle to the Albert Hall, stand through the concert then cycle all the way back. I began performing as a soloist, playing the Festival Hall several times before I finished my scholarship. I used to practice for six hours a day.

Two years after I left Guildhall, the Principal wrote and invited me to go back as a professor. I was a professor there for 17 years. From 1947, I performed as a soloist, playing concertos, broadcasting, especially on the BBC. I even played for the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, in 10 Downing Street. I was very, very lucky.

The 10 years before I got M.E. were probably the most exciting time in my life. I found a new interest in research and writing books and articles about the clarinet. I had also developed my own teaching practice in a studio in my home.

I was traveling all over the world, researching my books, meeting great clarinet players, many of whom are still my friends today. I gave lectures and masterclasses, too. It went to Australasia, America, Italy, Germany, Russia, Iceland, Japan.

In 1984 I directed the only International Clarinet Congress ever held in England. My wonderful friend Richard Mühlfeld, grandson of Brahms’s clarinetist, gave a lecture about the grandfather with whom he shared his name. I was interviewed with him afterwards by the BBC World Service.

But M.E. put a stop to everything. In 1992, one year after I caught the virus, I was in Arizona doing a series of university lectures when my voice just gave out. I just couldn't get the words out.

I moved down to Hythe, in Kent, where I started a new course of drugs. But they did not help.

I wrote my last article – for the Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain – in January. It was up to my standards but I knew at that moment that I couldn’t go on.

Now, as I prepare to go to Switzerland, I know there is nothing else I want to do. I have started stumbling over my words and I am losing my appetite. I have to push myself to eat.

I don't have any family but I have some wonderful friends who support what I am doing.

If they could only get somebody to find a cure for M.E. I think a lot of people still see it as a psychological disease. In my case, it’s entirely physical. If I had had depression, I couldn’t have kept writing professionally for 18 years. The trouble is, M.E. is invisible – almost totally invisible – to others.

I'm happy to go to Dignitas, although it has been a terribly stressful process. There are a lot of legal and financial arrangements. Swiss law needs signed and witnessed affidavits to prove who I am and where I live. I need a letter from a doctor to say I am fit to fly. I’ve had four months of stress with all the things they require me to do, because they have to do it in stages.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to do what I am doing. But I'm certain that it is right for me.

I go to Zurich by air ambulance. Then I have to stay in a hotel for four days to make sure that I really do want to go ahead.

The Dignitas doctor has already said that I am a subject for euthanasia, so there’s no problem there. But Swiss law says the doctor has to see me personally on the first day, then I have to have a day by myself to be quite sure. Then the third day, she comes again and on the fourth day I receive the dose of barbiturates.

I hope assisted suicide will come to England. It could be abused but from my experience so far, it doesn’t seem to be abused in Switzerland.

I’ve had a wonderful, happy life. Now it's over. What I want now is for campaigners, such as Action for M.E, to use my story to push the Government hard on medical research.

Action for ME have posted a lengthy statement at their website. To read it, click here.

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