When Athol Whiston (80) was faced with the possibility of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair, he and his wife, Beverly (79), decided they did not want to go on living. But for them, euthanasia was not an option. The Australian couple died together last year in a hotel room in Peru, after drinking a lethal substance they had purchased. They recorded their last years on video and in photographs. “We have now lived long enough.”

Death with dignity

Beverly and Athol’s final decision

By Enzo van Steenbergen, video Nina van Hattum and Benjamin Kat, design Koen Smeets. May 18, 2018

Voluntary euthanasia. They had booked the most luxurious suite in the hotel. They lay on their king-sized bed surrounded by warm colours: the light was amber, the sofa orange and the television stand a golden-brown. On the dark wooden bedside table was a bottle of Scotch (Drambuie), a sweet dessert wine (Sauternes, 2001) and a big bar of Toblerone chocolate.

It is June 20, 2017 at the exclusive El Pardo hotel in Lima, the capital of Peru. William Athol Whiston (80) uncaps the orange-and-white bottle of medicine and lets his wife Beverly Ann (79) take the first drink.

When Australian couple Beverly (79) and Athol Whiston (80) felt their lives were complete, there was no way for them to receive euthanasia anywhere in the world. They travelled to Peru to acquire a substance that would help them to *relinquish life*. A few weeks before, they told their story on camera. Watch the full documentary here.

Three days later, on a Saturday, police come to visit Carl Whiston in Sydney, Australia. They ask if they can come in and then ask him to sit down. They explain that something has happened to his parents during their travels. Carl is unsurprised. He already knows.

Drambuie

While sitting in their living room, Dutch husband and wife Sabine and Jan Bijleveld receive a text message from Carl, just as they had expected. It is finished.

Their bodies are carried out in brown and gold-checked sheets. The hotel’s head of security, Henry Vicente Weston, explains to Peruvian newspaper La República that after Beverly and Athol did not answer their phone, he ultimately decided to enter their suite. When he saw the orange-and-white bottles, he instantly knew. Euthanatics.

Death had come exactly as Beverly and Athol had imagined it all those years ago and exactly as they had said it would happen in the video recordings they had made in order to tell their story shortly before they died.

We believe that at 80 we’ve had a great life and we have lived long enough.

Act I: An unlikely couple

On the day they met, Athol has two different socks on. Beverly sees it immediately, while sitting up in her hospital bed, where she is recovering from appendicitis. It is Sydney in the early 1960s.

Champagne

Beverly has long black hair and blue-grey eyes. She grew up in a small Australian town, in a loving family, together with a younger sister she often looked after. When she met Athol—both in their early twenties—she was surrounded by friends who loved to party, laugh and drink. She was a nurse, but wanted to become an interior designer. Colour—that’s what she likes.

Athol was quite different. A quiet young man. Born in New Zealand, he showed promise as an athlete from an early age. After military service, he moved to Australia to work as an accountant.

Beverly noticed his dark curls, friendly face (and those socks) and wrote him off as a boring guy. Nevertheless, it was Athol she called a few months later when she needed help at a party that, even for her standards, had gotten out of hand. Men were forcing themselves on her; she felt unsafe and wanted to go home. With a grubby sweater thrown over his pyjamas, Athol came to pick her up in his old Volkswagen van.

Beverly: ‘Life is a gift to be enjoyed. Don’t sit around waiting.’

At their wedding, the guests think they are an improbable couple. Beverly’s maid of honour even warned Athol: don’t do it, she’ll leave you. But 28-year-old Athol, wearing a tuxedo and a black bow tie, laughed the warning off. Beverly, then 27, in her white dress and hair done up in her veil, indeed did not take the wedding seriously. She told everyone who would listen there was a good chance they would eventually get a divorce.

She knew herself well. She was restless; nothing in her life lasted long. While Athol worked his entire life in computer marketing, she changed from nurse, to interior designer, to owning a delicatessen and ultimately a restaurant.

It worked though - her restlessness and his steadfastness. They would go on to be together for 53 years.

Why would I want to leave the other part of me behind? It’s not possible.

Two years after their wedding, in 1966, Carl, was born. As a two-year-old, he fell from the kitchen counter and broke his wrist. Another time, Beverly left the trendy baby stroller—with Carl lying in it—inside a shop. She does not consider herself a good mother. She laughed aloud when she admitted that to her friend Sabine.

Carl was 10 years old when his parents sent him to boarding school. They thought their life of partying, seeing friends, working hard and lots of moving around was not good for a young child. Carl needed to make friends his own age. They worried about him. Was boarding school the right choice? Athol often had to reassure Beverly. Things will be fine, he would say.

He turned out to be right. Carl Whiston, now 52 years, tall and bald, believes that his upbringing, despite difficult years as a teenager and during his twenties, has made him into the strong and independent man he is today. A loner, yes. But even that has changed since the birth of his own daughter, River, 12 years ago. He is now more open and a happier person. Carl and his family live in Sydney. He works as a truck driver, travelling throughout the country.

His relationship with his parents had grown stronger over the years.

Act II: ‘We are going to die in Peru’

The arteries in his legs were slowly becoming blocked, his doctor told Athol at the end of 2012. At a certain point, not enough blood would be able to circulate. Walking would then become impossible. Amputation of his legs would be unavoidable in order to prevent the death of tissue, known as gangrene. If they did not amputate, there was a possibility that he could die.

Potion

Beverly and Athol had often talked about their death. Both were in their seventies, that was enough for them. Athol was not going to sit in a wheelchair, Beverly was not going to push him around and they were certainly not going to end up in a nursing home. In her work as a nurse, Beverly had seen far too much misery in such homes.

They also knew euthanasia would not be an option for them. It was banned at the national level in Australia. Even in the Netherlands—where euthanasia has been legal since 2002—people like Beverly and Athol would not be able to undergo a legal death together on their own given that a doctor would have to independently conclude that both of them were suffering ‘unbearably and without prospect of improvement’. There is no legal provision for relatively healthy people who feel they are ready for their lives to end, though the Liberal Democratic D66 party is currently developing draft legislation on this issue.

Beverly and Athol had always thought the rules were ridiculous. Politicians who decide whether they should live or die? No way!

Pet shops there are known to sell the substance used as an anaesthetic.

After all, no one had the right to tell them how to live their lives, so no one should be telling them how to die. They felt very strongly that there was no other option for them than to die together. Beverly explained: ‘He was always there, two feet on the ground. And I was somewhere, up there, two feet off the sky.’ She sees him as her better half. Why on earth would one half want to leave the other half behind?

After Athol’s diagnosis, they find information online about Exit International, a foundation established by ex-physician Philip Nitschke, a advocate for ‘humane suicide’. He has written a handbook in which he lists shops all over the world that sell euthanatics, or substances usually in liquid or powder form that can be ingested for a pain-free death.

Beverly and Athol follow the foundation’s forum, which lists the shops and addresses just like the book. Nitschke claims in a conversation with NRC that Exit International has ,,helped thousands” of people worldwide with a ,,humane suicide”. Peru is one of the options for Beverly and Athol. Pet shops there are known to sell the substance used as an anaesthetic. The bottles, with orange-and-white labels, contain the same active ingredient doctors in the Netherlands use for euthanasia.

Because importing euthanatics is illegal, no official records are kept to track how often these shipments actually happen.

Ordering it by mail is also an option, but that carries the risk that the package be intercepted by customs. In the Netherlands, it is estimated that dozens of people order the powder from a Chinese distributor annually. It nearly always makes it safely to its destination, according to multiple “end-of-life counsellors” who refer their clients to the addresses. Because it is illegal to import euthanatics to the Netherlands, no official records are kept to track how often these shipments actually happen.

In Australia, police have been known to raid the homes of people who import euthanatics. After that, social workers are then dispatched to assess the mental state of the buyer. Additionally, family members of those deceased in these cases run the risk of being prosecuted for assisting suicide, if they were aware of the intentions of their loved ones.

Beverly and Athol did not want to take that risk. They decided that they would end their lives in Peru. And while they were there, they could see the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.

It’s a freedom of choice, we are entitled to have that choice, we’ve been here almost 80 years.

They sell their house in 2013 and take a road trip across Australia in an SUV towing an almost 10-metre-long camper van. The behemoth of a vehicle blows all over the road with every gust of wind.

That Christmas, they park the camper in front of their son’s home in Sydney. It is then that they tell him about Athols legs and their decision to die together in Peru. Carl is shocked most of all by his father’s illness. It can be hereditary. That his parents want to commit suicide makes less of an impression on him. They often have crazy ideas, and most of them never materialise.

It is only after Beverly and Athol had already left that Carl begins to realise that this is one idea that is not going to disappear. In phone conversations, they speak more frequently about their impending death. They are making preparations, reading about how to obtain the lethal substance in Peru and speaking with other elderly people who wanted to take their death into their own hands. Gradually, they allow contact with friends and distant family to diminish.

During difficult moments, his parents’ plans remind Carl of his own youth—one without many hugs or much warmth. It sometimes feels as though his parents—now as grandparents to his daughter River—were repeating this same history. Why don’t they want to see her grow up?

But such moments are rare. Carl begins to understand. They are not able to accept their declining health and it is unthinkable that they will end up in a nursing home. His father without his mother, or the other way around, is unimaginable.

His parents’ anger becomes his own. He wonders: why can’t they die in his presence, in their own country, on their own terms? Why do they have to go to a pet shop in Peru to purchase the euthanatic substance? Carl absolutely hates governments that use religious or moral arguments to stop people from making their own choices.

Beverly: ‘We feel enormously loved and that is how we want to go out. We want to die with dignity, without deteriorating.’

At the end, he only has logistical questions for them. ‘What will happen to your bodies?’ he asks. This surprises his parents. They had not expected that something like this would be important to him. They think the idea of a funeral is ridiculous. They plan for their ashes to be scattered in Peru and want to arrange that with a local funeral director while there.

At Sydney’s Kingsford Smith International Airport, Carl sees his parents for the last time. It is Sunday March 12, 2017. His wife is with him. His daughter River hugs her grandparents. The young girl knows nothing about what is going to happen. River thinks that grandma and grandpa are just going on a trip and will return home.

A few days later, when Carl is alone at home, he cries.

Having to actually say goodbye to our friends and family was very, very difficult

Act III: The last conversation

On a wooden bench, Beverly and Athol overlook a narrow river, which winds its way through a typical Dutch landscape. She wears a wool jumper and big pink sunglasses. He has on a blue-and-white checked shirt. Behind them is the house where their friends Sabine (48) and Jan Bijleveld (52) live. She is on the management team of a marketing bureau. He is director of a potato-processing company.

Wine

It is late March 2017, a couple of months before their death. After saying farewell in Australia, Beverly and Athol do not fly to Peru immediately. They first travel to the Netherlands, at the invitation of Sabine and Jan.

The couples meet each other a few years earlier, in 2014, at a campsite in Australia. Sabine and Jan had taken a sabbatical to travel around. In the kitchen of a campsite near the small village of Broome, Beverly promises her husband a glass of wine, but only if he would throw the steaks on the grill. Sabine jumps in: “Let me grill the steaks and you can give the glass of wine to me instead,” she jokes.

Beverly and Athol have already decided not to make any more friends. They do not want even more people to whom they would have to say goodbye.

Yet, they sit the whole night together talking by their tent, eating snacks and drinking wine. A month later, by coincidence, they run into each other again at a campsite on the opposite side of the country. That is the moment that Beverly and Athol talk about their end-of-life plans. Sabine and Jan are shocked. Those people are both healthy and full of life. Why wouldn’t they want to continue living?

At a pet shop, they buy the euthanatics. The shop’s employees often know exactly why tourists come to purchase the drug, but don’t make too much of an issue of it.

That night, the Dutch couple lie awake for hours. ‘Would we be able to do that too,’ they whisper to each other, “plan our own end like that?’

In the years that follow, Sabine and Jan stay in close contact with Beverly and Athol. They email, call and send text messages to one another. Through e-mail and Whatsapp pictures they see Beverly beaming on a tractor and Athol taking care of a horse. They hear stories about Carl’s wedding, something they still wanted to attend. It turns out to be an unforgettable day.

For a long time, Sabine is convinced that they will not go through with it. They are simply too happy, she thinks. All that changes with an e-mail from Beverly in December 2016 reporting that Athol’s legs are getting worse and that they are afraid he would not be able to walk for much longer. She writes: ‘We are going to start on our journey.’

Sabine and Jan want to see the couple one more time, which is how they end up in the Netherlands, after saying goodbye to their son. They travel around Europe with Sabine. Jan joins them in Paris but misses the rest of the trip due to his work. In Amsterdam, they take a canal boat trip; in Belgium, they taste chocolate; and in Paris Beverly has her hair dyed bright red.

Friends of Sabine and Jan are surprised by the Australians. This is, after all, a couple that wanted to die and yet is travelling all around Europe? That is not the way that Sabine and Jan see it. Beverly and Athol had always lived life to the fullest and after spending a few weeks with them, it is clear for them that their friends will do everything to prevent deterioration. Sabine and Jan do not sense any fear of death in the Australians.

They record their last conversation on Whatsapp video. Beverly and Athol are bright and cheery during their final call.

The morning they leave for Peru, Thursday, April 6, 2017, they eat cheese sandwiches on brown bread at Sabine and Jan’s home. A few hours later, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Sabine and Jan watch as an airport employee helps Beverly get through the electronic gates she does not quite understand. Athol waves to them with his brown felt hat. Then they continue towards customs.

In May Beverly and Athol find themselves in Cusco, the ancient Incan city at the foot of the Andes. At a pet shop, they buy the euthanatics. The shop’s employees often know exactly why tourists come to purchase the drug, but don’t make too much of an issue of it.

They visit an undertaker. They invent an excuse, as they cannot tell anyone they are planning to commit suicide, something they could be subject to arrest for in such a devoutly Catholic country. ‘We are already old,’ Athol tells the undertaker. ‘So we want to have things organised, in case we happen to die here.’ Together, they make an agreement about the preparation of the death certificates.

Beverly and Athol never make it to Machu Picchu. They suffer from altitude sickness and Beverly ends up in hospital with food poisoning. They grow weary and decide to return to the lower altitude in Lima, where they had already spent a week. They stay in an apartment for a while and then they book the luxury suite at the El Pardo hotel.

Carl calls his parents the day before they died. It is a long conversation in which he asks about his youth and his boarding school. He tells them about his daughter and the house they want to build. They tell him they are proud of him and, as he hangs up, he feels the pressure in his chest diminish.

Beverly had told Sabine and Jan that she did not want an emotional goodbye. They record their last conversation on Whatsapp video. Sabine and Jan are anxious about the conversation beforehand, but that turns out to be unnecessary. Beverly and Athol are bright and cheery during their final call.

You were the missing link in a perfect life. Have a very good journey!

Epiloog: Those left behind

Sabine and Jan claim they never felt any sadness, even though they find that odd to say aloud. They are happy that Beverly and Athol were able to make their wish come true, even though they had to keep their plans semi-secret and travel all the way to Peru. They still regularly look at the pictures of their friends together. Sabine thinks: ‘It is good the way this happened; it is really good.’

Carl tried to have his parents’ ashes flown to Australia but the funeral director demanded such a high price he just gave up. ‘Scatter the ashes on Lima’s beach then,’ he told the man. Carl hopes his wish was honoured.

He has regular flashbacks to his life with his parents. Sometimes he forgets they are actually dead, as though they are simply on a long trip somewhere. During those moments, he misses them immensely. Carl’s daughter River, now 12, still does not know about her grandparents’ death. One day he will have to explain it to her, but has no idea how.

When Australian couple Beverly (79) and Athol Whiston (80) felt their lives were complete, there was no way for them to receive euthanasia anywhere in the world. They travelled to Peru to acquire a substance that would help them to *relinquish life*. A few weeks before, they told their story on camera. Watch the full documentary here.

Public Debate

All over the world, people like Beverly and Athol Whiston are in search of euthanatics. About six months ago, NRC covered the ‘other side’ of euthanasia, in which people rely on handbooks and ‘end-of-life counsellors.’ In the Netherlands, there are approximately 60 such counsellors.

In the Netherlands, there is an ongoing high-level political and social debate about the ability to choose the end of one’s own life. The focus of this debate is on those who want to make the choice to end their lives while they are still healthy. Under current Dutch law, they would not qualify for euthanasia because a doctor would have to diagnose their situation as “unbearable” and “hopeless.”

This year, the discussion in the Netherlands reached a fever pitch. The Last Will Cooperative (Dutch name: Coöperatie Laatste Wil), which claimed to have found an easily attainable and humane “last resort” drug, received tens of thousands of requests for it in a few months’ time. The first thousand people were supposed to have received the lethal powder in April until the Public Prosecutor intervened and the Cooperative halted its activities.

Even though this first attempt at legal distribution of the “last resort” drug failed, experts predicted that demand will not dissipate for a humane lethal way for people to choose death on their own terms.

Beverly and Athol’s story shows what choosing death through a self-acquired lethal drug can mean to friends involved and surviving family members. Very little is known about this, much as little is known about the background and motivation of people who feel as though their lives have reached an end.

The exact number of people who die by consuming a lethal substance they acquire themselves—like Beverly and Athol—is unknown; there are no official records. In the third evaluation of the euthanasia law in the Netherlands, performed last year, it was estimated that in 2015, 300 Dutch people killed themselves with lethal substances either acquired in the Netherlands or abroad. That a couple chooses to die together and travels abroad to do so is likely a very rare occurrence.

Behind the story

In October 2017, NRC published a story on “humane suicide” and the worldwide network of counsellors who help people find lethal substances for this purpose. The Peaceful Pill Handbook, which lists distributors from whom euthanatics can be obtained, plays a crucial role in this network. With this book in hand, NRC travelled to Peru and discovered it is relatively easy there to obtain a “last resort” drug.

The story highlighted a number of cases where foreigners were found in Peruvian hotels after ingesting the drug. One of those was about an older Australian couple.

After publication, Sabine Bijleveld contacted NRC. She and her husband, Jan, were good friends with the older couple from Australia, Beverly Ann and William Athol Whiston.

Sabine and Jan had collected hours of footage in which Beverly and Athol talk about their lives, the reasons they believe they have reached the end of them and their choice to die together in Peru.

NRC received all the raw footage, which, together with interviews with Sabine and Jan, served as the basis for this story. In some of the video footage, Beverly and Athol talk elaborately about how they plan to spend their last hours together. It is in this way that NRC obtained the details in the story.

A mini-documentary (English version) with footage of Beverly and Athol can be found at nrc.nl/docu-death-with-dignity. There is also a multimedia adaptation of this story on the site, including pictures from the couple in Australia. This will be available next Saturday at: nrc.nl/death-with-dignity

Before they died, Beverly and Athol gave written permission to use the videos and pictures and to share them with the press. In an e-mail dated 10 April 2017, they wrote to Sabine and Jan: You have our permission to use the material on the video that we voluntarily made with you including any photographs or video that you took of us in Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland. You may make a video of this material and share it after we have died.

Their son Carl also confirmed this to NRC. He answered NRC’s extensive questions, has approved the translation of the article and the videos and in an e-mail dated 6 February 2018 said: I have no problem with you using any information regarding my parents in your article.

Carl read the article before publication and viewed the documentary. The same can be said for Sabine and Jan.

Editor
Enzo van Steenbergen.
Translation
Jessica Dorsey, Sterre Meijer and Robin Pascoe.
Video
Nina van Hattum and Benjamin Kat.
Artwork
Midas van Son.
Videoplayer
Tim Hoogendijk.
Design
Koen Smeets.