40-year-old Paralympic champ dies by euthanasia after years of spinal disease pain

WATCH: An ethical issue facing Canada's next leader is our country's legislation around medically assisted death.

Decorated Paralympian Marieke Vervoort ended her life on Tuesday in her native Belgium after signing euthanasia papers more than a decade ago. She was 40.

Her death was confirmed in a statement from the City of Diest.

The athlete — who lived with severe pain from an incurable degenerative spinal disease — won gold and silver medals in wheelchair racing at the 2012 London Paralympics and collected two more medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

In an interview at the Paralympics in Rio attended by Associated Press, Vervoort described living with the pain of her condition.

READ MORE: California woman holds party before ending life under new assisted-dying law

“It’s too hard for my body,” Vervoort said. “Each training I’m suffering because of pain. Every race I train hard. Training and riding and doing competition are medicine for me. I push so hard — to push literally all my fear and everything away.”

Sometimes, Vervoort said, she only managed to get 10 minutes of sleep a night because of the pain she experienced.

For her last evening, the Paralympian was surrounded by close family and friends and even enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine.

“I’m really scared, but those papers give me a lot of peace of mind because I know when it’s enough for me, I have those papers,” she said.

Marieke Vervoort and dog Zenn arrived on Eurostar at St. Pancras Station on Aug. 26, 2012.

Marieke Vervoort and dog Zenn arrived on Eurostar at St. Pancras Station on Aug. 26, 2012.

Canadian Press

Vervoort was also an advocate for the legal right to choose euthanasia.

“If I didn’t have those papers, I think I’d have done suicide already,” she said. “I think there will be fewer suicides when every country has the law of euthanasia. … I hope everybody sees that this is not murder, but it makes people live longer.”

Vervoort first signed the papers, which gave her the right to end her life when she wanted, in 2008, Today reports.

The athlete lived with a form of progressive tetraplegia for decades. The condition caused seizures, and she was unable to use her legs.

Speaking to the Telegraph in London in 2017, Vervoort said she didn’t “want to suffer anymore.”

“It’s too hard for me now. I get more and more depressed,” she said. “I never had these feelings before. I cry a lot.”

Vervoort also said her eyesight was disappearing due to the degenerative disease and recounted an experience in which she had seizures.

“A neurologist stayed with me the whole night while I had one spasm after another,” she told the Telegraph. “She said it wasn’t an epileptic seizure but just the body screaming, ‘I’m in so much pain. I’m done.'”

Her service dog, Zenn, was a big help to Vervoort, as the animal would paw at her when a seizure was coming on and help the athlete with daily tasks.

According to AP, Vervoort continued to push back the day of her death, knowing that any day could be her last.

READ MORE: Doctor explains how she’ll proceed with assisted dying without a law in place

“You have to live day by day and enjoy the little moments,” she said. “Everybody tomorrow can have a car accident and die or a heart attack and die.

“It can be tomorrow for everybody.”

In June 2016, Canada passed federal legislation allowing adults to request medical assistance in dying.

To be eligible, a patient must be eligible for health services funded by the federal government, be at least 18 years old and mentally competent, have a grievous or irremediable medical condition, make a voluntary request to seek medical assistance in dying and give informed consent.

— With files from the Associated Press

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

meaghan.wray@globalnews.ca

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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