According to her family, which was outside on a terrace at the time of the incident, 36-year-old Alexina Wattiez was suffocated to death with pillows as nurses and other hospital staff pressed them over her face to finish the job that the drugs failed to do.
Wattiez received a devastating terminal cancer diagnosis in 2021 that doctors said would end her life within a year. When 2022 came around and she was still alive, barely, she opted to participate in Belgium's euthanasia program, which was first legalized back in 2022.
Wattiez was in such extreme pain and misery at the time, and knew that the cancer was going to eventually take her anyway, that she chose to speed things up with a lethal injection. When that lethal injection failed, her caretakers chose a different route.
As doctors and nurses pressed pillows over Wattiez's face, her family says she could be heard from all the way outside screaming in terror.
"After a short night's sleep, I was woken up by a nurse who told me that Alexina was doing very badly," said Christophe Stulens, Wattiez's partner. "Then the doctor took some syringes and we were asked if we wanted to say goodbye."
While Stulens and his 15-year-old daughter waited outside on the terrace, they say they could hear Wattiez screaming, despite previous promises by euthanasia doctors that her death would be "peaceful."
"I recognized her voice," Stulens said. "Afterwards, we saw her lying on the bed with her eyes and mouth open."
An autopsy later confirmed that Wattiez had, in fact, died of asphyxiation and not from the euthanasia drug cocktail she was given.
(Related: Check out our earlier report covering the expansion of Belgium's legalized euthanasia laws to include assisted suicide for children.)
It is rather common for euthanasia drugs, which are also frequently used in the execution of criminals, to fail in this way. It is also unclear in cases where they do work as to whether or not the resulting death was really peaceful for the patient.
According to Dr. Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at the Emory School of Medicine, the process of dying by lethal injection might appear peaceful, but this is not necessarily the case.
"The death penalty is not the same as assisted dying, of course," Zivot said. "Executions are meant to be punishment; euthanasia is about relief from suffering."
"Yet for both euthanasia and executions, paralytic drugs are used. These drugs, given in high enough doses, mean that a patient cannot move a muscle, cannot express any outward or visible sign of pain. But that doesn't mean that he or she is free from suffering."
In some cases, a patient who receives a lethal injection can experience the lungs filling up with fluid, resulting in a drowning death. And since the patient is paralyzed due to the drugs, he or she cannot move or say anything, despite possibly feeling the pain of it all.
"Advocates of assisted dying owe a duty to the public to be truthful about the details of killing and dying," Zivot further said about the process. "People who want to die deserve to know that they may end up drowning, not just falling asleep."
French president Emmanuel Macron is working on a similar "End of Life Model" for France that advocates hope will morph into a euthanasia model similar to that of Belgium.
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