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Tragic Norwich woman died after telling doctors not to treat her

PUBLISHED: 18:09 01 October 2009 | UPDATED: 14:23 06 July 2010

Kerrie Wooltorton

Kerrie Wooltorton

Norfolk doctors have been defended for letting a young woman die after she drank poison.

Kerrie Wooltorton's death has sparked a debate about medical ethics across the country.

Norfolk doctors have been defended for letting a young woman die after she drank poison.

Kerrie Wooltorton's death has sparked a debate about medical ethics across the country. The Norwich 26-year-old, who poisoned herself, is believed to be the first suicide victim to have made use of a “living will” under a law passed in 2005.

She had written a living will which said she was “100pc aware of the consequences” of her actions. The medics at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital were put in the difficult position of having to abide by her wishes or save her life.

Miss Wooltorton had an incurable, emotionally unstable personality disorder and a history of self-harm, and had in the past been sectioned and admitted to Hellesdon Hospital.

At the time of her death she was living in her own home in Hellesdon Close, but was having some treatment from Norfolk and Waveney Mental Trust. She had previously accepted life-saving treatment to flush a toxic alcohol from her system up to nine times in the year before her death.

Hospital spokesman Andrew Stronach said: “It is a double-bind for doctors. She was very clear in her wishes. To have forced treatment on her would have been unlawful.”

Miss Wooltorton was admitted to hospital in September 2007, three days after her living will was written. She wrote a letter saying that if she called for an ambulance it was not a plea for treatment, but because she did not want to die alone and in pain.

During the inquest, consultant renal physician Alexander Heaton said: “She was in no state to resist me and I could have forced treatment on her, but I don't think it was the right thing to do. I feel it would have been assault.”

He took advice from the hospital's medical director and legal adviser, and said it was clear that she had the mental capacity to make such a judgement and was aware of the consequences.

He said: “It's my duty to follow her wishes… She had made them abundantly clear and I was content that that was the case.”

His decision has been condemned by anti-euthanasia groups, but at the inquest in Norwich this week, greater Norfolk coroner William Armstrong said it was legally right. He said: “My judgement is that Kerrie had mental capacity. She had the right to refuse treatment and could not have been treated without her consent.

“Her decision to refuse treatment was consistent and she never changed her mind. The doctor went over and above what was required of him. He discussed the case with clinical colleagues, took a second opinion from a fellow consultant and sought advice from the medical director.

“A deliberate decision to die may appear repugnant, but any treatment to have saved Kerrie's life in the absence of her consent would have been unlawful.”

ProLife Alliance chairman Dominica Roberts said: “We think that it is very tragic indeed and we made a warning before the legislation went through that this exact thing would happen. We think the law should be changed because any safeguards which were made are useless.”

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