‘ I had done the right thing for my mother’
Emma Russell speaks to former Whanganui nurse Lesley Martin, who went to jail for the attempted murder of her terminally ill mother in 2004
As Lesley Martin sat in a cold dark prison cell, she reflected on whether helping her mum die was the right decision.
It was May 28, 2004 — or as she remembers it, the fifth anniversary of her “beautiful, humorous and warm-loving” mum’s death.
More than 170km away from Wellington’s Arohata Women’s Prison, a theatrical version of her book To Die Like a Dog was being performed in her hometown Whanganui.
Martin’s book was about her reasons for helping her terminally ill mother Joy die with 60mg of morphine. The book led police to open a homicide inquiry into Joy Martin’s death, which eventually resulted in Lesley Martin being sentenced to 15 months in prison. She served seven and half months before release.
Martin says she knew her book could lead to jail, but says prison didn’t scare her as much as knowing someone could die a cruel and painful death. During the theatrical performance, two candles were lit — one for Martin and another for her mum. It was the only time the book was acted out in a play.
“I knew the play was being performed that night and I was at my lowest then,” Martin told the Weekend Herald in a phone interview from her home in Hereford, England.
“I really deeply soul searched to find whether I had any remorse or any thought ‘ had I done the wrong thing’, ‘ did I deserve to be in prison’ and I kept coming to the conclusion, morally I had done the right thing for my mother.” More than 16 years later Martin says she still “with all my heart” believes that.
The now 57- year- old says she will be voting “yes, without a doubt” in support of the End of Life Choice Act referendum. If a majority vote in favour, voluntary euthanasia will be legal after October next year.
“This is long overdue, it’s a natural progression of the social reform and it’s important that New Zealanders have their say at grassroots level because it is an issue that affects each one of us.” Martin though was critical of the legislation for a lack of support and information available to patients and their families.
“I personally have always said there should be ‘ dignity havens’ that were separate from hospice. If this act does become legal it will be a mess.”
The havens would have specified doctors willing to assist patients with dying, as well as support and counselling to avoid people being pressured, Martin said.
She said that for her, 20 years ago, there was no support. “I remember my lawyer telling me not to talk to anyone but her. I went to a priest and he wouldn’t even talk to me. I couldn’t believe it, it really hurt.”
If the proposed law was in force back in 1999, Joy Martin would have been eligible for assisting dying.
At the time, the 69- year- old was dying of bowel cancer, a “horrible disease” that had already claimed Joy Martin’s mother — Lesley’s grandmother.
Martin said from the time Joy had surgery in January 1999 to the day of her death on May 28, 1999 she lost 40kg.
“She never stepped a foot outside the house again once she came home from hospital because she nearly died after surgery from multiple- organ failure. She was ventilated and on life support and we thought we were going to lose her back then.”
Martin said she made a promise to her mother to help her die with dignity. “My mum said to me ‘ it was better to die like a dog than a human being’.”
It’s important that New Zealanders have their say. Lesley Martin
“It’s a very common thing when people are in good health and could, for example, be watching a movie with a very horrible death unfolding, and you look to each other and say ‘ if ever that’s me you’ll switch the machine off or shoot me or whatever’, you agree and make these promises and then get a cup of tea and biscuit and watch the rest of the movie and life goes on.”
The mother- of- two said during her time as an intensive care nurse at Whanganui Hospital many suffering patients had asked for help to die.
“Whenever that happened I emotionally and almost physically took a step back and would say ‘ no I can’t do that but I can do everything I can to make you comfortable’ but in my mind when you go home from those night shifts you think ‘ Would I help someone I love’?”
Martin said she believed if her mother had been able to make use of assisted dying, they would have had that significant goodbye.
“You know, I can’t remember the last thing I said to my mum.”