The spiky-haired Paralympic medallist Marieke Vervoort of Diest, Belgium, who spoke openly about her illness and her planned assisted death, died on October 22. She was 40. The T52 wheelchair racer won gold in the T52 100m and silver in the 200m at the 2012 Paralympics in London, and at Rio in 2016 she won silver in the 400m and bronze in the 100m. After Rio, she retired from competition. Vervoort’s death brings home the reality that some athletes with disabilities live with excruciating pain and illness.
Vervoort was diagnosed at 14 with the rare, degenerative spinal condition that rendered her paraplegic and made sleeping (and sometimes even eating) impossible. Assisted suicide has been legal in Belgium since 2002, but requires the agreement of three physicians and consultation with a psychiatrist. Vervoort received approval in 2008. (Medical assistance in dying, or MAID, became legal in Canada in 2016.)
To ensure equality in competition, Para sport athletes are classified into sport-specific categories according to their degree of impairment. The T52 para classification covers athletes with strong upper bodies who are paralyzed (or mostly paralyzed) below the waist. They may have limited fine motor skills in their arms and hands. For many para athletes, this is the result of spinal cord injuries, but some, like Vervoort, have degenerative conditions that become more disabling over time.
A CNN report said Vervoort also suffered from epilepsy, and that her therapy dog, a yellow lab named Zenn, would alert her of an impending seizure before it happened, by pawing her. It said that once she received approval for an assisted death, it gave her peace of mind to know that when her illness became too much for her to bear, she would receive the help she needed and wanted, and she looked forward to a peaceful death. She became a strong advocate for the practice.
In 2014, Vervoort had a seizure while cooking, and spilled boiling water on her legs, which sent her to hospital for four months.
In an interview with The Guardian at the Rio Olympics, Vervoort said that sport had become a lifeline, but that racing was becoming too hard on her body.
After her silver medal win in Rio three years ago, Vervoort gave a press conference, denying rumours that she was planning to commit suicide once the Paralympics were over. But she admitted that if she had not been approved for an assisted death, she would have found a way to kill herself.