A high court judge has ruled in Lecretia Seales case and delivered his decision to her family before she died on Friday. Dawn Picken talked to people who knew Lecretia in the Bay - and examines the right-to-die issue.

A very nice person. An excellent student. Very intelligent, motivated and cheerful.

These are some of the ways Nena Rovekamp describes Lecretia Seales, who she taught German for more than four years at Tauranga Girls' College.

"She always had a lovely smile and was very positive."

Ms Rovekamp knew Lecretia planned to study law. The following summer after Lecretia had graduated, the two bumped into each other in the supermarket.

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"She was telling me about getting her law degree, and was enthusiastic about it."

Ms Rovekamp was saddened when she first learned about Lecretia's illness several months ago - and backed what her former student was doing.

"I fully support her cause now, what she's doing. Before I was a teacher, I did some nursing of cancer patients in Holland. Methods have improved, but I have some idea of what people go through."

Another Tauranga local, barrister Toni Brown saw Lecretia in court last week. Brown says she has been on the national committee of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society for a couple of years, and the society had urgently petitioned the High Court as an interested party with a limited right of inclusion in the case (other intervening parties are the Human Rights Commission and the Care Alliance).

Ms Brown appeared in court three days last week and decided not to talk to Lecretia.

Toni Brown is one of the lawyers who acted as an intervener in the high court in Wellington on the Lecretia Seales case. Photo / John Borren
Toni Brown is one of the lawyers who acted as an intervener in the high court in Wellington on the Lecretia Seales case. Photo / John Borren

"I saw her in court - she had deteriorated considerably. She was in the last stages of her life and needed to be left alone with her family. She knew we were on the same side. It didn't require a conversation, though it would've been nice to have the opportunity. You use the precious time you have for the most important things."

Ms Brown says because Lecretia's case was brought with haste, all lawyers - those arguing in favour and those making the case against physician-aided dying - agreed on processes, timetables and the manner in which evidence would be presented.

"It was a humbling and meaningful experience to be a part of that."

The case sought to clarify the law in a way that would enable Lecretia's doctor to help her die peacefully, if she chose. Her husband said she did not want to be dependent on the care of others in her final days, to suffer intolerably or be sedated to the extent she was not conscious of her loved ones. The 42-year-old had an untreatable brain tumour.

Ms Brown was impressed by the Wellington attorney's strength of character and her family support.

"I didn't know Lecretia, but she definitely was the best person to bring the case at a very good time. You have to be pretty much at the top of your game to be employed in the roles she was at the Law Commission.

"For her entire family to be tied up doing this in her dying weeks shows the tremendous support they have for her and the import this has for her life and death. All of us are grateful for the sacrifices she has made to bring such an important case to the front and centre of New Zealand, for the wider population and for people who find themselves every week in the situation she has."

One of Lecretia's friends, Angela, writes on lecretia.org how the two met at age 12 in Tauranga. Angela recounts how Lecretia helped her during her final year of high school after her boyfriend died suddenly. "It was six weeks before our bursary exams, and my life was in pieces ... Each morning, Lecretia would come to my house and collect me for school, whether I wanted to go or not ... Lecretia bossed me about, which was exactly what I needed, and pushed me to focus on my exams and my future, supporting me with the maturity of an adult." As a result, Angela writes, she got the monetary award she needed to attend law school.

A glimpse of what Lecretia had to deal with is chronicled on her blog site. In one post, husband Matt Vickers writes about returning home for Easter: "Travel is a lot harder than it used to be ... This Friday, we headed to Tauranga to stay with Lecretia's family, and boarding a flight now involves a wheelchair from the check-in desk, followed by the use of a disabled passenger lift to get Lecretia on to the plane. There's a short walk to the seat, and then waiting for the other passengers to disembark at the end of the flight, which is not easy when the chemotherapy and accompanying drugs have rendered your bladder as weak as a mouse and as insistent as an alarm clock."

A glimpse of what Lecretia had to deal with is chronicled on her blog site.
A glimpse of what Lecretia had to deal with is chronicled on her blog site.

He writes his wife later collapsed from weakness and nausea. " ... but once Lecretia developed a rash we were told to get to the hospital so we raced to Tauranga Hospital's emergency department to get it checked out."

According to Mr Vickers, how the tumour might affect Lecretia was a mystery, so anything unusual needed to be treated with care. However, he says in this instance, the doctor was unable to determine what was wrong, the rash subsided, and IV fluids restored his wife's hydration. So the couple left. Mr Vickers writes: "Last night after being discharged we went straight from the hospital to one of Tauranga's better restaurants after having had to push the reservation back twice. Lecretia still had a swab taped to her arm to stem the bleeding from where her fluid line went in. We had a three-course dinner with some of her closest family and chatted late into the night. What else can you do?"

Mr Vickers writes he recently organised a hospital bed for his home in Wellington, because it was a struggle to get his wife's body into a seated position.

"Lecretia is not well. Her eyes are closed most of the time. She is having trouble swallowing. She is talking less and less. But she is facing all of this without complaint." She was suffering from bodily tremors that rattled her bed. "Lecretia's choice is imminent, and we don't know yet if she will get to make it ... I know that having the ability to make a choice about how her life ends would give her more strength to face it ... I don't know what she will ultimately choose, or even whether she will get to. But for Lecretia, it was always having the choice that mattered, not the choice itself." THE debate of physician-assisted suicide is a strong one.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide say the issue is gathering momentum, thanks to Lecretia's case.

Tauranga Voluntary Euthanasia Society chairwoman Tess Nesdale says her group has been involved in gathering signatures for a petition requesting Parliament "investigate fully public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation which would permit medically assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable".

Ms Nesdale says: "It's been a subject people have either ignored or denied. They deny they're going to die. I know this because I work with elderly people." She has worked as a nurse for four decades, often providing care to patients at the end of their lives. She says during the last couple of months of signature gathering, "we've had nobody oppose us".

The society says some political parties are forbidding MPs from reviewing right-to-die laws, and no elected representatives have done so since Labour leader Andrew Little buried MP Ian Lees-Galloway's End of Life Choice Bill last December.

Tess Nesdale is the chairwoman of the Tauranga branch of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Photo / Andrew Warner
Tess Nesdale is the chairwoman of the Tauranga branch of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Photo / Andrew Warner

Ms Nesdale says elected officials are responsible for legislation affecting life and death. "If I didn't believe they wouldn't set it up in a good way, I wouldn't support it. [Former MP Maryan] Street's bill had experts all over the world to advise her on it. If you've been in the business I've been in, you want something to change. There's no dignity. If you are a living, breathing soul in a body that just has had it - it's hardly functioning and can't function unless a lot of people help you - there's not much dignity in that. To me, it's not what was meant to be for us."

But opponents fear allowing a doctor to help someone die will mutate the doctor-patient relationship, making some people fearful of allowing themselves to be treated.

Waipuna Hospice chief executive Richard Thurlow says: "Any family going through what they're going through will find it incredibly tough. It's quite a watershed moment. At the moment, New Zealand's not set up to do this. It's a big risk to the health-care sector."

Richard Thurlow.
Richard Thurlow.

One of the opposing parties in Lecretia's case - the Care Alliance (a coalition of organisations and individuals opposing legislation of euthanasia in New Zealand) - calls euthanasia "unnecessary" and "dangerous".

The Care Alliance's website states: "Excellent palliative care allows people with terminal illnesses to complete their life's journey with dignity and comfort ... Any state-approved procedure to cause a person's early death increases the risk to our most vulnerable citizens, in subtle and not so subtle ways."

Before the judge's ruling yesterday, Nena Rovekamp said she was proud of her former student.

"I think she's reached a lot of people because of her high profile in the news. I just wish it was for something different. I am very sad about it. I can recognise the pictures from when she was high school age," she said.

"They remind me of what she was like. I really support her cause and think she's extremely brave to be thinking of other people, as well."