Grantham Journal Big Interview: Making life or death decisions

Peter Clawson.
Peter Clawson.
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A well-known Grantham face has revealed lesser known details about his family to the Journal because he wants to encourage debate on the issue of assisted dying.

Peter Clawson has spoken about four deeply personal moments where he has had to make decisions which really were a matter of life or death.

The Journal columnist and former sports editor said: “More people than you would think will have had to make that decision.”

Indeed the first time Peter had to make such a choice himself was when he was only 16, and in the middle of taking his O-level exams.

Talking candidly about his experience, Peter remembers: “My mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was nine. She became very depressed and when I was 16 she went into the bedroom, locked herself in, and said she was going to take all her pills.”

With his dad gone Peter had to cope with this all on his own, and moreover had to make up his mind on what to do.

“I didn’t know if she had taken the pills – she wouldn’t tell me. I said to her if you don’t tell me I’m going to have to call an ambulance. That’s the decision that you are faced with. She wanted to die.”

In the end Peter did call for paramedics, who rushed her to hospital and saved her life because she had taken an overdose.

Years later Peter was reassured that he had made the right choice, as his mother who ended up ‘living far longer than most people with multiple sclerosis’, told him that she was glad he had made that life-saving call.

However while in this instance Peter made that decision, he stresses the complex issues surrounding whether or not assisting the terminally ill to end their life should be legalised.

It has of course become a topic of national debate with Lord Falconer’s private members bill currently going through the two houses.

According to a survey this year organised by YouGov and campaigners Dignity in Dying, 73% of adults asked in England and Wales believe the bill to legalise assisted dying should be passed.

On the other side, 70% of members from the Royal College of General Practitioners said in a 2014 consultation that they should remain opposed to the bill.

“It isn’t just a black or white decision,” adds Peter, “As far as I’m concerned I don’t believe in suicide, assisted or not, but I do believe people should have the right if they want to. And they shouldn’t have to think of the law as well. If there are religious reasons, your religion should direct your choice.”

The complexity behind such a decision became apparent to Peter when for the second time in his life he had to make it, this time concerning his son Paul.

At the age of just 21 doctors identified that Paul had a brain tumour, and although one operation managed to extend his life by 15 months, his condition later deteriorated.

“It got to the stage where we had to carry him around the house,” remembers Peter, and once again he found himself facing a stark choice.

There could have been another operation, but if it went ahead there was a high liklihood that Paul would remain in a coma for several years.

With doctors proposing to turn off the life support and his son making it clear to him what he wanted, Peter says: “I respected his wishes.”

He continued: “Some of the deaths I have seen, especially in the job, have been horrible, but he died a simple death.”

However Peter believes his former wife Doreen never fully recovered from the loss, and five years later when they came home following a meal he found himself in a frighteningly familiar situation.

“She couldn’t breathe and she begged me not to call the ambulance. Instead I called the doctor, who then called the ambulance. She died in front of me. But she died of a broken heart, not just lung cancer.”

The life or death decisions Peter has made have concerned himself as well as his family, after he was taken into hospital due to his ongoing heart fibrillation.

“They expected me to die. But in the middle of the night, the man next to me had an awful seizure. I was awake all night and somewhere a voice said to me I can either die like him or stay. From that moment on, I decided to keep going.”

This is exactly what he has done, and while he highlights that it is not ‘a black or white decision’, what is clear is the need for debate on such an important issue.