RIO DE JANEIRO — Marieke Vervoort lives with nearly unbroken pain. The Belgian has an incurable, degenerative spinal disease, sleeps only 10 minutes some nights, and in 2008 she signed euthanasia papers so she can decide when to end her own life.
The 37-year-old Paralympian is prepared to die, but not now. Back home, newspapers have been reporting the wheelchair racer intends to kill herself after the Paralympics end next weekend.
“I think there is a great mistake about what the press told in Belgium,” Vervoort said Sunday, speaking in English and surrounded by reporters wanting to hear her compelling story.
“This is totally out of the question,” she added. “When the day comes, when I have more bad days than good days — I have my euthanasia papers. But the time is not there yet.”
This is Vervoort’s last Paralympics. She won silver Saturday night in the T52 400 meters, adding to the gold and silver medals she won four years ago in London. Her last wheelchair race will be Saturday at 100 meters.
She’s shown her will to live by tackling tough training, and it’s also helped keep her alive. But she has to give it up, as she has other things, as her body has broken down.
Her pain is so severe at times that she loses consciousness, and she said the sight of her in pain has caused others to pass out.
“It’s too hard for my body,” Vervoort said. “Each training I’m suffering because of pain. Every race I train hard. Training and riding and doing competition are medicine for me. I push so hard — to push literally all my fear and everything away.”
Vervoort is a strong advocate of the right to choose euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium. Like training hard, she said it gives her the control and “puts my own life in my hands.”
“I’m really scared, but those (euthanasia) papers give me a lot of peace of mind because I know when it’s enough for me, I have those papers,” she said.
“If I didn’t have those papers, I think I’d have done suicide already. I think there will be fewer suicides when every country has the law of euthanasia. … I hope everybody sees that this is not murder, but it makes people live longer.”
Vervoort said getting the papers was difficult, requiring examinations by several doctors who looked at her mental and physical state. She said it’s not like having the flu.
“You only get those papers when there is no way back,” she said.
As her body withers, she needs a helper to visit four times daily. She suffers from epileptic seizures, and had one in 2014 when she was cooking pasta and spilled boiling water over her legs. That resulted in a four-month hospital stay.
A beloved Labrador named Zenn now stays with her, pawing her when a seizure is about to occur. Zenn also pulls her socks out of the sock drawer, and helps carry groceries home when Vervoort buys too much.
“When I’m going to have an epileptic attack, she warns me one hour before,” Vervoort said. “I don’t know how she feels it.”
Vervoort said she keeps pushing back the day of her death, knowing it could come anytime — as it can for anyone. She said she can be pain-free one minute, and nearly pass out a few minutes later.
“You have to live day-by-day and enjoy the little moments,” she said. “Everybody tomorrow can have a car accident and die, or a heart attack and die. It can be tomorrow for everybody.”
Vervoort calls herself a “crazy lady.” She still hopes to fly in an F-16 fighter jet, ride in a rally car, and she’s curating a museum of her life going back to at least 14 when she was diagnosed with her rare illness. She also gives inspirational speeches, has picked out a singer for her wake, and says everyone will drink champagne, and not be bored with coffee and cake.
She wants to be remembered as the lady who was “always laughing, always smiling.”
“I feel different about death now than years ago,” Vervoort said. “For me I think death is something like they operate on you, you go to sleep and you never wake up. For me it’s something peaceful.”