‘The State spared no resource in denying Marie a dignified death'

Interview: Tom Curran reflects on the Supreme Court’s ruling against his partner

Sat, May 4, 2013, 10:26

It took the Supreme Court less than 10 minutes last Monday morning to announce that Marie Fleming’s long battle to win the right to assisted suicide had finally come to an end. She was too unwell to be in court that day. Tom Curran, her partner of 18 years and her full-time carer for more than a decade, sat before the seven judges – wigless, kindly, some of them stealing an occasional glance in his direction – as the Chief Justice confirmed what Tom had told himself to expect. He greeted it with a simple nod.

On the steps of the Four Courts, quayside traffic rumbling past, Curran told reporters of Marie’s disappointment. He said he remained willing to help her die if that was what she wanted, and that it would be for the courts to decide his fate. Then the camera shutters fell silent, the crowd dispersed, and Curran began the journey home to the cottage he and Marie share with their dog, Scruffy, overlooking the Aughrim river near Arklow in Co Wicklow.

“We were both quite down,” he says of the mood at home that night. “Even though it was a small glimmer of hope, there was some there . . . But to my great surprise – it was lovely – the next morning Marie got up and she was buoyant, and she started to talk about things like ‘what are we going to do now?’ That was it. That’s the wonderful sort of person she is.”

Tumultuous year
A few days have passed, and Curran – a friendly, gentle 65-year-old – is sitting by the fireplace in a corner of his local hotel bar, reflecting on a tumultuous year.

Curran speaks softly, in fully formed sentences, mostly without rancour. Yet certain things rankle. He admits he found himself getting upset by the cold, impersonal codes of the Supreme Court, where discussion centres only on legal argument.

“I know that we’re only dealing with points of law, but they spoke about us as if it was a building being taken over by Nama. It didn’t seem to be a person’s life that they were talking about.”

“Even in the judgment – and this is not a criticism of the judge herself – it just seemed very cold. The dispassionate language that was used – “dismissed”, as if, ‘go away and don’t bother us’.”

Fleming and Curran met 18 years ago – she was a lecturer in business studies at UCD, he worked for an IT consultancy – and within a few months, they had moved in together. She had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her early 30s, but because she had the relapse-remit form of the disease, it wasn’t even noticeable when they met.

As the years progressed, however, so did the MS. Relapses became more frequent. Twelve years ago, Tom gave up his job and became Marie’s carer. While her cognitive function has not been affected, the 59-year-old has lost almost all her motor function.

A collapsed shoulder impinges on her lung and breathing function, and she takes 22 pills each day to ensure her limbs are pliable and supple for the seven carers who come in to shower, toilet, dress her and put her back in the wheelchair. At night, when she is watching Coronation Street in the bedroom and Tom has one of his cookery or DIY shows on in the living room, she will call him if she needs to scratch her nose or take a drink of water.

‘Fire in her belly’
“I don’t think I could be in the same spirits that she is,” he says. She always had that resilience, he adds, smiling. “There was fire in her belly all the time.”

“She is an incredibly intelligent person. She loved walking. She is so disappointed that she can’t, so we try to use the wheelchair as her legs as much as we can . . . We loved going to the theatre. We both love food, so we used go out for meals. Things like that are difficult now.”

At home in Arklow, the question of assisted suicide first came up around the time that Tom gave up his job – a time when they started to think about the future. But he is keen to put right what he feels has been a common misunderstanding about the case. Marie doesn’t want to die.

“She doesn’t have a death wish,” he stresses. “She wants to live. She just wants to control the way she dies.”

Marie is recovering from a chest infection that struck in mid-March, and they hope that with the improving weather they’ll soon be able to get out of the house a bit. But the past few weeks have added to Tom’s sense of grievance over the State’s approach to their case.

“There was three weeks of huge anxiety as to whether she would survive, and could we stop it turning to pneumonia,” he says. “I literally sat up beside her bed every night for 2½ weeks.

“The State, when we went to look for permission for Marie to have a dignified and peaceful death, spared no resource in denying her that . . . But they didn’t lift a finger to keep her alive. The palliative care people knew that she was in this condition, but I didn’t even get a phone call from them to see if they could help. We didn’t have home help on weekends or bank holidays. The only help I got was from her GP.

“They say it’s the State’s responsibility not to allow a person die. But they did nothing to keep her alive.”

And yet the support Marie received over the past year has been a constant encouragement. Tom cries when he recalls the elderly man who, on recognising him in town, crossed the street to intercept him. Tom thought he was in for a lambasting. To his surprise, the man shook his hand, said nothing and walked on past. “You know? It brought tears to my eyes then as well.”

Swiss clinic
Five-and-a-half years ago, Marie was talked out of going to Dignitas, the clinic in Switzerland where terminally ill patients can bring about their own deaths under the supervision of qualified doctors. At the time, Tom gave her an assurance that he would find her another option and she could die at home if she wanted.

For that reason, he says, he stands by his words outside the Four Courts. All he worries about is how they would explain it to Marie’s grandchildren. “How do you explain to grandchildren that their grandfather is being investigated for killing their grandmother? That I have a huge difficulty with.”

Beyond that, does he fear the consequences?

“Not a bit, no,” he replies. Tom’s voice catches again; he pauses for a moment. “In the past 5½ years, she has seen two grandchildren born, which she is very grateful for, but from a purely selfish point of view, I have got 5½ years extra with the person I love. To me, that’s worth 14 years in jail. So let them do what they want.”