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Going To Dignitas Gave Our Dad A New Lease Of Life

Going To Dignitas Gave Our Dad A New Lease Of Life

Keith Fenton took the brave decision to end his life after being diagnosed with Huntington's disease

Dominic Smithers

Dominic Smithers

"As soon as he got the green light to die, it was as if he was a different person - and started living his life again."

In 2008, Keith Fenton was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a degenerative disorder that affects the brain, slowly killing the body.

The dad-of-two was just 50 when he was given a life sentence that had already taken his father, his brother, and his sister.

And knowing what lay ahead, the former Royal Engineer took the decision to end his life early, flying to Dignitas in Switzerland in 2017, where he passed away as his wife Sara and daughter Charlotte held his hand.

Their heartbreaking final act of love was helping him to end his own life.

Speaking to LADbible, Charlotte opens up about what it was like to lose the man she calls her hero - and negotiate a path that is still seen as taboo in some countries and illegal in others.

Charlotte was just 13 when her dad was first diagnosed. She recalls: "They had said he had about 10 years left to live, which at the time I thought was ages and that I didn't have to worry about. But it soon came around."

Slowly, over the following years, its effects started to show. In 2010 they sold their family home and moved into a bungalow to make life easier for her dad, who struggled to make it upstairs.

Keith was a 'hero' to his family.

"That's when it dawned on me that we probably weren't going to get 10 years with him," she says.

"I always called my dad my hero. I always thought he was invincible. He was in the army and it seemed as though nothing could ever hurt him. So when I heard that (diagnosis) - I just didn't want to believe it."

As his independence slowly slipped away, unable to do things for himself that at one time were second-nature, Keith began to contemplate his own end.

Charlotte says: "We took care of him ourselves and I worked quite close to home so would nip back on my lunch break to help out.

"One day I came home and he said, 'Oh, there's no point in being around anymore, I can't do anything myself.'"

Shortly after this, one night in April 2017, he took an overdose.

"I ran to see him and asked why he had done it," Charlotte says. "He just said he didn't want to be here anymore and pleaded with us not to ring an ambulance.

"But we were worried that if we didn't then it might be seen as if we were helping him to die.

"Fortunately, he let us call 999 and his attempt failed. But he was devastated that he was still here."

Assisted dying is illegal in the UK, with those convicted of helping someone end their life facing up to 14 years in prison.

Before his diagnosis, he loved being active with his children.

After surviving the attempt, Keith was taken to a psychiatric hospital, before moving into a care home, spending weekends with his family.

In constant pain, waiting for his body to shut down further, watching the disease pick away at what remained of his independence, he broke the news to his family that he had decided to go to Dignitas.

"I was hoping he would change his mind before it got to the end and we actually go to Switzerland," Charlotte says.

"I just thought, 'Can't we have one more Christmas, or one more year together? One more family holiday?' I still had loads of milestones in my life and I was upset because I couldn't understand why he didn't want to see me grow up and share them with me.

"But he was adamant that he was going as soon as possible."

She adds: "After thinking about it, I realised that I was being selfish; Dad was in a lot of pain and it took so much courage for him to tell me and my brother, so we needed to be able to support him."

The process is long and expensive, with Keith having to empty his savings to raise the £10,000 for the application, as well as provide medical information to prove he was making the decision himself.

But eventually he received the news he had been so desperate for, meaning he would be allowed to die the way he wanted.

Charlotte says: "He kept saying, 'I can't wait to hear from them and get the green light to go.' He was so excited, it was as if it was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Charlotte with her dad after he had taken an overdose.

"He was just over the moon. It was as if he was a different person and started living his life again.

"When he got his diagnosis, he wouldn't really go out very much at the weekend and when he was at the care home he would't go out on any of the day trips.

"But when he knew he had that green light, he wanted to go out. So we went to Bournemouth beach one weekend, then we would go out to see family or just do things together."

She added: "I think being in control of his death gave him a new lease of life and it was almost as if we had the old Dad back, before he got too ill."

While for most of us, the prospect of 'the end', of never being to see our family again, is unimaginable, for Keith it was cause for celebration. It meant the pain was almost over.

"Because of his illness, Dad never drank," Charlotte says. "But when he got the green light he had a few glasses of red wine which, for him, was quite a big thing.

"He was just a different person, the music was on and he was dancing about, and he would never have done that before. That's why it was such a bittersweet moment. For him, I could see how happy it had made him and how relieved he was.

"And though it was such a sad moment, it made me happy to see that smile again."

In November 2017, just a couple of weeks after getting the green light, Charlotte, her brother Edward, Sara, and Keith travelled to Switzerland.

Once there, Keith had to undergo two consultations to make sure he wasn't being forced to do it.

Once Keith got the 'green light', he started to live his life again and go out on trips with his family.

Charlotte reflects: "In the days in between the meetings, we were able to go out as a family and do a bit of sight-seeing because dad was so carefree and knew his pain was coming to an end.

"He would never eat a lot before because he was worried about choking, but when we were there he didn't even think about it and ate as much as he could - I think he had four desserts the night before he died.

"In the morning, me and my brother gave him letters we had written for him, telling him how much we loved him and how brave we thought he was. He said they were his 'pass into heaven' and asked us to make sure he was cremated with them.

"Then, on the way there, he gave my brother his watch and me his wedding ring. To be handed his most prized possessions made it even more real."

Once they arrived at Dignitas, Charlotte's brother waited outside while she and their mum went in with Keith.

He was then asked for a final time if he still 'wanted to die today'.

"Hearing that question broke my heart," Charlotte remembers. "I just couldn't understand how he was so positive about wanting to end his life. I just couldn't even imagine it.

"But I'm not in pain every single day. I'm not suffering from a terminal illness."

After filling out more paperwork, Keith was taken into another room and given the drink, which he had to administer himself, and which would end his life.

Charlotte says: "For the first 20 minutes after he had taken the liquid, we were able to have a chat with him, told him how much we loved him, hugged him. And he was still so chirpy and happy. It was so odd to see him like that, especially when we felt as though it was the saddest day of our lives.

Keith, happy, just half-an-hour before going to Dignitas.

"One of the people there said that it usually takes between 30 to 45 minutes for people to pass away, but Dad kept going and going, and he kept breathing.

"Every time he had that one breath it was another moment I had with Dad."

At 12.37pm on 30 November 2017, Keith Fenton passed away peacefully with his wife and daughter by his side.

And while Keith was no longer in pain, his family feel robbed of precious months and years with their father because of the barriers to assisted suicide in the UK.

Looking back on everything, Charlotte says: "It was only when we came back from Switzerland that it hit me that it had actually happened. I've come back to the UK and I don't have a dad anymore.

"We lost time with our dad. I think that if it was in the UK we would probably have had a couple more years with him because he wouldn't have felt the pressure to travel straight away.

"It makes me angry that we have to go all the way to Switzerland and spend all that money, just so he could have the dignified death he deserved."

Now, Charlotte, Edward and Sara campaign with Dignity in Dying for a change to the law, so that people diagnosed with terminal or debilitating conditions are able to have their lives back.

Edward says: "We weren't investigated by the police but we were very wary coming back into Gatwick. We didn't know if the police would have been waiting for us.

"I felt angry that assisted death isn't allowed in the UK because Dad could have lived another few years quite happily and travelling with Dad to Switzerland put us at risk of prosecution.

"I think this is a really important fact for a terminally ill person that knows they can have an assisted death. It allows that person to live again, knowing they have a backup plan when they can't go on anymore.

"It is not about the death at this stage, it gives them back their life."

Featured Image Credit: Supplied/LADbible

Topics: UK News, Interesting