In Death, A Champion for Life Well Lived

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05: Marieke Vervoort of Belgium celebrates as she wins gold in the Women's 100m T52 Final on day 7 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on September 5, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

For the New York Times, writer Andrew Keh and photographer Lynsey Addario spent three years interviewing Belgian gold-medal winning paralympic sprinter Marieke Vervoort to learn about how she lived with a debilitating and painful degenerative muscle condition that began when she was a teen with a tingling sensation in her feet. At age 40, over 11 years after she applied and was granted the right to doctor-assisted euthanasia in Belgium, she chose to end her suffering.

What had begun for Vervoort as a happy childhood — loving parents, a younger sister, long days playing sports on a dead-end street — had grown complicated by her teen years, when the pain that plagued her for the rest of her life first appeared. It emerged initially as a tingling in her feet. The tingling over the years turned to pain, smoldering up her legs, sapping their strength. She spent her teens on crutches. At 20, she was in a wheelchair.

The right to end one’s life with the assistance of a doctor has been legal in the country since 2002, available to patients who exhibit a “hopeless” medical condition with “unbearable” suffering, including mental illnesses or cognitive disorders. No country has more liberal laws for doctor-assisted death than Belgium, a country of 11 million people, where 2,357 patients underwent euthanasia in 2018.

But she kept the appointment with Dr. Distelmans, and he, after a close examination, granted her the preliminary approval to end her life. He added, though, that she did not quite seem ready to follow through with it.

She agreed.

“I just wanted to have the paper in my hands for when the time comes that it’s too much for me, when, day and night, someone has to take care of me, when I have too much pain,” she said in one of a series of conversations we had over three years of reporting. “I don’t want to live that way.”

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