a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


I hated science when I was a child


How my parents killed themselves
Martin Raff Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

Yeah, I’m very interested in the problem and I think we as a society, a civilisation does it, handles this problem badly since we’re all going to die. Many people die horrific deaths when it’s totally unnecessary. The technology is available, at least in the western world and a lot of the eastern world for people to die with dignity, without pain and so on, where they are in control of their own death, and that is not the case for the vast majority of deaths, even in the most civilised, so-called civilised cities.

So my own sense is that people will look back on this era and the way people are allowed to die as among the most barbaric parts of our society. So I’m a great fan of euthanasia, I think that that’s what one needs to do and put in all the controls to make sure it isn’t abused. But my parents killed themselves and it was just a great experience. Although it was enormously difficult for them to do it, it turned out to be a wonderful thing for them to have done, in my view.

So my father was a doctor. He was at the time 87. My mother was around the same age. She had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease and he was in pretty good health, although he had a controlled form of cancer. But they had good lives and they had been planning this for years. They didn’t want to rot in an old age home, they did not want to live without each other so they wanted to die together, and had been planning it for years.

Now, I’m a physician, my brother is a physician and my dad is… was a physician so we had all of the available technology in our hands. So we had stored large amounts of barbiturate and things that one would need to do it, and it turns out it’s quite complicated to do it properly. You want to be absolutely certain that you both die if you’re going to do this, and this was arranged. My brother and I… and my brother actually practices in the city where my parents lived which was Sarasota, Florida, and I visited for a week and this was supposed to happen at the end of the week that I was there.

And the plan originally was that my brother and I would be there and assist in any way we could, and my parents were very gung-ho about this, very cheery. But it turns out that a few days before this we went to a lawyer to ask them, to ask this lawyer what he thought, what precautions we needed to take and so on about this. And he said, look, it’s absolutely mandatory that I should not be in the country when this happens, my brother should not be in the building when this happens, he will have to… and shouldn’t even know about it before it happens. He should discover their bodies and be surprised and you really have to be very, very careful and all of this advice is off the record because I’m not allowed to give you this kind of advice.

So that changed the plan, but still it was going to happen at the end of the week on the Sunday, I would fly out on the Saturday. And on the Thursday my parents went to see a doctor friend of theirs, a good friend of the family and had operated on my mother some years before to say goodbye. And this surgeon for some reason took great offence that they were going to kill themselves and called my brother and me in to see him and said, you know, I just think this is a terrible thing, it’s obvious that they’re depressed. My brother and I said, look, they’re not depressed at all, they’re very cheery, there’s no element of depression here. He said, well, in my view nobody would do this, unless they were seriously depressed, and I must tell you that I’m very much against it.

Well, he was so much against it that he called the police and got a lawyer and a judge and himself to sign a form, and the police came and took my father away and incarcerated him in the insane asylum in Sarasota and put him on this ward with all these various very mentally ill patients. And he was finally seen by a psychiatrist after a couple of days who, when we tried to talk to him, couldn’t get to see him for another couple of days. When we finally got to see him he said, well, your dad’s clearly depressed and so we’re going to have to keep him in for at least six weeks to see how he responds to antidepressant drugs.

It turned out he’d seen my father for about 30 seconds, took no history, didn’t do an exam and it was just hideous. And we said, look, he’s not depressed, his eyes are watering because he’s 87 years old and it’s a common sign and symptom in a… in an old person. Anyway, we finally got hold of a lawyer friend in Chicago who gave us some advice. We got hold of the constitution and Florida laws and found out that they’d broken every law when they incarcerated him. They never read him his rights. A psychiatrist has to see him within the first 12-24 hours, which they didn’t, and none of these things were done. And… and so went back to the hospital, called the psychiatrist and said, we’re going to sue this hospital for every penny it has, we’ll close it down unless he’s out of there in an hour. And in the end they allowed him to sign himself out, which is actually quite amusing; you can’t sign yourself out when you’ve been incarcerated against your will, but anyway that’s what happened.

So it was a nightmare and my mother during this period when my dad was incarcerated completely lost it. So she didn’t know where she was, she didn’t know who we were, I mean, it was a nightmare for a week for her being there without my dad. It was… it was terrible. So then when my dad finally was let go, they postponed a month and then they did it. When they did it… so I went back and spent a week with them and I can tell you on the… they did it that night, that they were just so cheery. We talked about what they were about to do. They… my mother, even though she had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, was with it enough to know exactly what they were doing, looking forward to doing it because they’d had good lives, they knew any moment some terrible thing could happen, and it was just wonderful. There was not an element, no hint of fear or depression, or… it was just terrific. They were clearly thrilled to pieces. They’d had a good life and this was it.

But of course when this happened it got all over the newspaper and the radio and television, and their bodies were taken by the police and they held onto them for ten days, and my brother was questioned. I mean, they’re 87 years old and they did this rigorous investigation. I mean, it was ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. So in the end it all worked out well, but just think, I mean, here we are, three physicians, how difficult this thing was and it’s… it’s just frightening and it, you know, it’s outrageous.

So my own view is that every individual should have the right to end their lives the way they want to end their life. It’s outrageous that somebody else should impose suffering and indignity on you because of some value system that you don’t share that they hold, like a religion. I mean, fine, I have nothing against people having strong religious beliefs, but that that should dictate how I’m to die, this is just outrageous. So when I retire, this will be one of the things I get my teeth into.

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death. Recently retired from his professorship at University College, London, these stories were recorded in 2000.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Sarasota, Florida, Chicago

Duration: 7 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: 2000

Date story went live: 13 July 2010