My uncle’s girlfriend died last night. Police broke down her door after a care worker raised the alarm. She had taken an overdose. She was airlifted to hospital but failed to regain consciousness and died ten days later.
These are the facts of the case. As a journalist I’ve always enjoyed writing obituaries, much to other peoples’ surprise. Being given the chance to celebrate a person’s life in 350 words, the length of a regular page lead in print, is an impossible challenge but I feel gratitude for being given the opportunity. I think every human being’s life should be recognised in a newspaper, acknowledged that this person once existed.
This is why I’m writing her story.
Also because, like with many stories, the bare facts are straightforward but once you dig deeper you find a different story altogether.
Police broke down my uncle’s girlfriend’s door, lets call her Evelyn, after a care worker called them. However, this was several hours after the care worker had actually tried to get into Evelyn’s apartment. She hadn’t opened the door, which was highly unusual. No matter how poorly she had been, Evelyn would always answer the door.
For reasons unknown, the care worker only voiced these concerns at the end of her shift several hours later and not to the police. To my mum, who lives three hours away. She was worried because Evelyn wasn’t answering the door. The cat had been sitting on the kitchen windowsill, looking at her.
“What do you expect me to do?” my mum had yelled down the phone. “Call the cops!”
The care worker had been hesitant but finally she did make the call. The door was broken down over 48 hours after Evelyn’s last confirmed contact to the outside world, so nobody knows for how long she had been unconscious. The medications she had taken had already left the bloodstream.
Evelyn had a history of overdoses. She had recently had her stomach pumped and she had also been hospitalised after drinking bleach only few days before. Regardless of this, she was allowed to administer her own medications and hold large amounts in her flat. A pharmacist, she made her own decisions about what she felt she needed and hadn’t touched the medication she had been given to treat her bipolar disorder.
Despite repeated suicidal behaviour Evelyn was allowed out of hospital. Besides the care worker who visited once a week, she was under no medical supervision. She had mostly alienated herself from friends and family but her daughter called a few times a week. Her most regular human contact was my uncle, who also suffers from bipolar disorder and regularly completely isolates himself from the outside world. They didn’t live together.
Between Saturday, when Evelyn had her last confirmed contact with another person, and Monday morning when the care worker rang the doorbell, she didn’t receive any phone calls or visitors.
During her ten days in hospital, Evelyn’s eyelids were twitching as if she was trying to open her eyes.
“She’s trying to wake up,” my uncle texted his sister, my mum.
Mum did some research and found out that this was a sign of advanced brain damage. He didn’t respond.
Evelyn never gained consciousness again. During her ten days in hospital her limbs underwent necrosis. Her hands and feet turned black.
My uncle and Evelyn had a turbulent relationship to say the least. Over the course of a decade they married, got divorced, he moved to the other end of the country to get away from her, only to invite her to move next door to him a few months later. My uncle struggles to hold relationships with anyone, I haven’t seen him in years despite being his ‘favourite relative’, but I haven’t got a doubt in my mind that he loved her. She was the only woman who he wanted back in his life after shutting her out.
Evelyn didn’t have to die.
I was at one point hospitalised for my own safety. Once I was discharged, I was only allowed weekly prescriptions for several months despite the fact that I have no history of overdoses. Months later I still have at least weekly meetings with my care-coordinator, and have more than one number to call in an emergency whether day or night. Had similar steps been taken with Evelyn, she might still be here today.
I have a theory that she took an overdose soon after her last phone call. That would collaborate with the toxicology report. Had someone called or visited her on Sunday, an alarm may have been raised earlier and it could’ve been just another stomach pump job.
Had the care worker been alarmed enough by her unusual behaviour of not answering the door enough to call the police immediately and not hours later, she might have survived.
There are a lot of ifs and buts.
Nobody knows what happened during those final hours except Evelyn. She didn’t leave a note. I’ve attempted taking my own life, so I can imagine what might have been going through her mind. Desperation that her medication wasn’t helping her, she felt the weight of the illness closing in on her, thinking she was alone and unable to keep fighting on. I know what it’s like to be in such blinding mental and physical pain that you want to die.
There is nothing shameful about Evelyn taking her own life. Succumbing to a mental illness is nothing different to losing a battle with cancer. The illness overcame the person’s capability.
The only people who should be ashamed are the ones who could’ve helped her but didn’t.
Her death was nothing short of criminal negligence. After continued failings by the healthcare system, society and her family alike she saw no other way to end her pain.
I wasn’t close to Evelyn but nobody deserves to die like that, alone and forgotten.
I’m telling Evelyn’s story because otherwise it would go untold, and there are countless like hers. Anyone who thinks mental illness is not real or is a choice, should have had to hold Evelyn’s withering hand.
She never stopped breathing unaided.