A former member of staff at Bracknell & Wokingham College, who had asked to end her life with Dignitas in Switzerland, threw herself into a canal and drowned, an inquest heard.
Carol Hutchins. 53, from Grays Crescent in Woodley, took her own life after the multiple sclerosis she had suffered from for more than 20 years got worse. She was found floating in the River Kennet in Reading on Saturday, October 22. Carol worked at the college for 14 years as a health and safety adviser, before having to give up in 2010 when her condition started to deteriorate.
An inquest, held at Windsor Guildhall on Thursday, February 23, heard how Ms Hutchins had travelled to the canal in the evening and raised her electric wheelchair so it was higher than the barrier by the canal. She then leant over and toppled into the water. She was recovered by police and taken to Royal Berkshire Hospital, but she died before she reached the hospital. She was seen before her death by student Lauren Agnew, who said Ms Hutchins was sitting in her wheelchair by the barrier.
Her body was later spotted by Daniel Parks, who was working to clear graffiti in the area. In his statement, he said he had returned from getting breakfast that morning to see a body floating in the water. Several other witnesses saw her wheelchair by the side of the river.
She had been diagnosed with having multiple sclerosis in 1989 and her twin sister Ingrid Foan told Berkshire coroner Peter Bedford her sister had been determined to live a normal life after the diagnosis. However, her condition had got worse and she had become depressed. Her sister told the inquest how Ms Hutchins had identified “brick walls to drive into” and had given away various items to people before she died. She said: “She begged me to buy tickets to Switzerland so she could end her life with Dignitas.
“Her hands had gone numb, she lost the ability to write and she couldn’t do Sudoko puzzles any more. She was brilliant at them, I could never do them but she was really good.
“She spent 10 weeks in hospital and her condition got much worse after she came out.”
Ms Foan also told the inquest how the day before her death her sister had returned home hysterical because she had gone to the river, but the electrical seat on her wheelchair had not worked. The post-mortem showed her lungs were “waterlogged”, which caused the cardiac arrest from which she died.
Her father Alec told Mr Bedford: “She would’ve had to cross a busy road to get to the river and she waited until no one was around to do it. She was determined no one else would be involved.” Mr Bedford said: “Carol suffered from a horrible debilitating condition. “She was taking anti-depressants in the lead-up to her death. I am satisfied from the evidence we’ve heard that Carol Hutchins took her own life while suffering from depression.”
Drowning is not generally a painless way to die (exceptions being from a great height, such as with the Golden Gate Bridge). This person was driven to extreme measures. It was said she died by suicide while suffering from depression. Wouldn’t anyone be ‘depressed’ if living with her physical condition?
Now not everyone thinks Dignitas is a good idea. Some people would like more stringent measures to stop Brits going abroad for assisted suicide there. But the point is, Dignitas does have some stringent criteria. You can’t just ‘turn up.’ In some cases, both a physical and psychological evaluation is required. In other words, the person must come into contact with a number of professionals and, if they are suffering unbearably from a physical or mental condition that can be relieved, then that possibility will be considered. Is that not better than someone throwing themselves into the canal?
Two other questions remain unanswered. Was she, in fact, a member of Dignitas? In exceptional circumstances, the organisation (and one or two others) will make special arrangements for someone to be accompanied to Switzerland. But I also worry whether, on her former salary and current allowances at the time that she died, Carol Hutchins would have afforded the considerable fees involved (amounting to many thousands of pounds, even before air fares are considered).
They say that a society can be judged on how well it cares for its least able. In looking at Carol Hutchins’ demise, one concludes that Britain could be judged rather badly.