EUTHANASIA ON THE NHS?; Family Demands Inquiry after Grandmother Receives 'Higher Dose Than Shipman's Victims'

Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales), February 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

EUTHANASIA ON THE NHS?; Family Demands Inquiry after Grandmother Receives 'Higher Dose Than Shipman's Victims'


Byline: BY MARTIN SHIPTON CHIEF REPORTER

THE Government is likely to decide this week whether to launch an inquiry into allegations that an 86-year-old Welsh grandmother was killed as part of an unacknowledged "involuntary euthanasia" policy in the NHS.

Olwen Gibbings, who lived at Aberbargoed, near Caerphilly, died in 1996. She was admitted with a leg ulcer. They say her medical records suggest that on the day she died she was given a higher dosage of diamorphine than Dr Harold Shipman used in killing his patients.

Her daughter and son-in-law, Olwyn and Mal Bowen, are convinced that her death was a direct result of large doses of the heroin-based painkiller diamorphine being pumped into her body.

A police investigation into Mrs Gibbings' death resulted in a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the medical staff involved.

But the Bowens maintain there are clear grounds for believing that Mrs Gibbings died unnecessarily.

They have received support from unexpected quarters.

Dr Michael Irwin, who chairs the provoluntary euthanasia group Doctors for Assisted Dying, wrote to Mrs Bowen after she sent him the case papers. His letter stated: "Having carefully reviewed all the documentation you have sent me, I believe that involuntary euthanasia was performed on Mrs Gibbings.

"Involuntary euthanasia can be defined as ending someone's life who could consent but does not. Such an action is indistinguishable from criminal homicide and the claim that the motive for killing is in 'the best interest' of the patient is irrelevant."

Dr Irwin estimates that the deaths of at least 100,000 elderly people in England and Wales each year may be attributed to euthanasia, of which no more than 3,000 are voluntary.

He argues that doctors are able to reconcile euthanasia with their duty to preserve life by relying on the concept of "double effect", under which they give drugs to relieve pain even if the result is to shorten a patient's life.

Dr Irwin's letter to Mrs Bowen concluded: "The 'excuse' of double effect allows the possibility of slow euthanasia, and as such is performed today in general practice, in hospitals and nursing homes, and in hospices throughout the UK."

Mrs Bowen, who lives at Blackwood, near Caerphilly, said: "After my mother's death we obtained her medical records. They suggest that on the day she died she was given a higher dosage of diamorphine than Dr Harold Shipman was in the habit of giving to the patients he killed.

"When she went into hospital she was sitting up in bed reading a magazine. But after they gave her the diamorphine she was gasping for breath.

"On her medical records her age, 86, was circled. That says it all, I think.

"There are also the letters DNR, meaning Do Not Resuscitate. Yet this issue was not discussed with us or with my mother, who had no reason not to want to live. When she went into hospital she thought she was going in for routine treatment to her leg ulcer."

While in the hospital, which has since closed, Mrs Gibbings caught the super-bug infection MRSA. Days after her death, laboratory test results confirmed that she did not have the most virulent strain of the infection, but Type B, which is treatable with antibiotics.

Their strong feeling that Mrs Gibbings had died unnecessarily led the Bowens to set up a telephone helpline for the relatives of elderly patients who died in similar circumstances. They were contacted by hundreds of people from all over Britain, many of them with harrowing stories.

Mrs Bowen said: "When deaths occur, people feel isolated and overwhelmed. If relatives wish to pursue a complaint they find themselves up against a medical bureaucracy that supports the status quo.

"Each case is treated singly and therefore general issues of principle are not considered. …

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