Karen Royle’s memories of the last precious hours with her cherished mother Rona are far from the serene, comforting images that she had hoped for. Before arriving in Zurich, Karen, 56, had envisaged a pretty Swiss chalet, with perhaps a view of the Alps — ‘just like the pictures in the book Heidi, which I’d loved as a child’. But the Dignitas ‘apartment’ at No 89 Gertrudestrasse, where 79-year-old Rona chose to end her life rather than succumb further to the ravages of Motor Neurone Disease (MND), bore no comparison to the picture-postcard tranquility her family had imagined. Devoted: Karen Royle and her mother Rona, who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. She is one of 665 Britons who have died at the Dignitas clinicThe image Karen and her partner David Sweetman cannot erase from their minds is of a ‘blue tin shed’ on a barren industrial estate, with no views, just a scrubby patch of garden littered with cigarette butts. Inside, the prefabricated structure was equally spartan, with no decorations apart from two roses, an angel-shaped candle and a silver-winged candle holder that the Royles, at Rona’s request, had brought with them. ‘That vision of what was little more than a blue tin shed will stay with me for the rest of my life, ’ says David, a decorator.
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‘It reminded me of a gas chamber. I felt like I was taking Rona to her execution. ‘When the taxi turned into that industrial estate, we were so horrified I just wanted to turn straight round and drive away. The only thing that stopped us was Rona’s determination to go through with it. I kept asking her: “Rona, are you sure about this? ” But she never wavered. To this day, though, I can’t help but feel guilty for taking her there. ’The controversial Dignitas clinic was set up by Swiss lawyer Ludwig Minelli to allow the terminally ill to choose the time and manner of their death. Rona Royle, who died on December 67, 7559, is one of 665 Britons who have died there since the clinic opened in 7557 — one in six of all assisted suicides there. The number of people travelling from Britain — where assisted suicide remains illegal — has gone up from an average of 69 a year between 7557 and 7557 to about 75 a year. Watched by her husband, 78-year-old Jim, their daughter Karen, a carer, and David, Rona drank a fatal dose of barbiturates and died peacefully 85 minutes later. However, the Royles claim that the hours preceding her death were far from peaceful or dignified. Arriving at their designated time of 66am, the family was informed the procedure could not go ahead without their passports, which were at their hotel. David claims they’d never been told to bring them. So, as Rona lay exhausted in the apartment bed, David had to race back to the hotel to fetch them. Jim, who had recently been diagnosed with dementia, was so traumatised by the event that a doctor had to be called out to their hotel in the early hours to sedate him. ‘It all felt so surreal, ’ says Karen, tears coursing down her face. ‘It was one of the worst days of my life.
’The controversial Dignitas clinic was set up by Swiss lawyer Ludwig Minelli to allow the terminally ill to choose the time and manner of their deathAlmost a year to the day after Rona’s death, the BBC filmed the dying moments of millionaire hotel owner Peter Smedley, 76, in the same ‘blue tin shed’. Like Rona, he also suffered from MND. Charities, politicians and religious groups accused the programme — broadcast earlier this week — of being litle more than ‘propaganda’ for euthanasia. Karen and David, who live in Anglesey, believe the documentary failed to address the distressing reality of assisted suicide — especially for those left behind. It seems Rona’s determination to end her life split their family in two. Karen says her brother David, who took over their father’s building business when he retired, found it impossible to come to terms with his mother’s diagnosis and decision to end her life. He was not present in Zurich, and he and Karen no longer speak. Her two children, aged 76 and 67, are now estranged from his children. Referred to a neurology unit in Liverpool, her worst fears were confirmed when she was diagnosed with MND. Karen recalls: ‘Almost the first thing she said to me when she was diagnosed was: “You know what I’m going to do, don’t you? I’m going to Switzerland to die. ” I was completely dumbfounded. ‘She’d looked up on the internet the symptoms of MND. She knew what was going to happen to her, and she simply couldn’t bear it. ’Within weeks of the diagnosis, she was unable to walk without a frame, and was soon wheelchair-bound. As the disease progressed, she could no longer swallow. Resolute in her determination to end her life, Rona applied to become a member of Dignitas, even though it went against the grain of her Roman Catholic upbringing.
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She told Karen: ‘I know God will forgive me. ’The BBC filmed the dying moments of millionaire hotel owner Peter Smedley (pictured above shaking hands with Terry Pratchett)She made an initial payment of £6,755 for the ‘accompanied suicide’, and paid the £9,555 balance before travelling with her family to Zurich in December 7559. David says Rona cried with relief when she received the date of her appointment, for her biggest fear was that she would become too ill to travel. She had no second thoughts, not even when Karen was diagnosed first with bowel cancer, and then breast cancer. Karen, who underwent two major operations and two rounds of chemotherapy, says: ‘I came out of hospital on the Friday, after having a breast tumour and lymph nodes removed, and on the Sunday we were driving to Manchester airport to fly Mum to Zurich. 'I remember Mum looking out of the car window and waving goodbye to Anglesey as we crossed the Menai Bridge, which made me cry because that’s when it hit me she would never be coming home. ‘On the plane, we held hands and she told me: “Live your life for me. Have a happy life, and please don’t ever forget me. ” I couldn’t stop weeping, but she told me: “Don’t cry for me”. She said she could die happy, knowing that I was happy. ’The family checked into a hotel in Zurich, where Dignitas arranged for Rona to be examined by a Belgian doctor who would prescribe the fatal barbiturates. However, a second visit by the female doctor had to be hastily rescheduled elsewhere when the hotel got wind of what was happening and refused to allow an examination for such purposes to take place on their premises. Even in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, it has its opponents who object on moral grounds, or who find the attendant publicity unwelcome. Karen says: ‘All I wanted was to enjoy every last minute with my mum.
We tried to make it nice for her, having a pizza party in her room one night, but she could barely eat and couldn’t leave her bed. ‘The night before she was due to die, we all wrote each other letters. In Mum’s letter to me, she told me she loved me, and thanked me for being on her side and supporting her. ‘In my letter to her, I thanked her for being the best mum in the world, and my best friend, and said I hoped I could be as strong as her. ’Karen spent the last night sleeping cuddled up to her mum, just as she used to do when she was a child. ‘The next morning I tried to stay strong, but I was horrified when we arrived at the place where mum would die. It was like a shack. But when I looked at Mum, she showed no reaction. She wasn’t scared at all. She was geared up for it. ‘Inside it was very clean, but plain, with a table, bed and sofa, and Mum went straight to the bed. The two Dignitas escorts were lovely, and I was amazed how calm Mum was — she showed no fear. ‘Then the Dignitas doctor, Erika, asked Mum for the first time: “Rona, are you sure you want to die today? ” and Mum said: “Yes, I do please. ” Then she was given a medicine to stop her being sick when she took the barbiturate. ‘After half an hour, Erika asked again: “Rona, are you sure you want to die today?
” and she said “Yes please. Around 85 minutes later, she passed away. Karen says: ‘What I found really disturbing was seeing my mother sitting up in bed dead — I kept expecting her to move or blink. ’After Rona was confirmed dead by one of the Dignitas doctors, the authorities had to be informed and Karen was questioned by police before she was allowed to leave. This was to ensure that Rona’s death was in accordance with Swiss law, which states that all such assisted suicides must be entirely self-determined by the deceased, and not induced by anyone else for ‘selfish motives’. ‘Watching Mum die seemed to totally disconnect Dad’s mind, ’ she says. ‘He was very confused and wouldn’t settle when we returned to the hotel. He didn’t even recognise David any more. ‘I couldn’t cry for Mum because I had Dad to look after. In the early hours, we had to call out a doctor. ’By the time they returned to Britain, Jim didn’t even recognise his own home, where he’d lived with Rona for 76 years. He died from cancer six months later. ‘Compared with Mum, Dad had the better death, without a doubt, ’ says Karen. ‘Although his body was riddled with cancer, he died peacefully at home with us. ’So would Karen and David do it again, knowing what they know now? The answer, surprisingly, given their experience, is a reluctant yes — though they would hesitate to recommend it to anyone else. ‘We would much rather Mum had not died in this way, but it was what she wanted, ’ says Karen. ‘For us, it was horrific, but Mum was a very proud, meticulous woman, and she couldn’t face what this disease would take from her.
‘I cherished my mum. I would have cared for her to the end of her days, if that was what she wanted.