Jane Macdonald: Nurse and campaigner who fought for the right to die with dignity

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The Independent Online

In a letter urging Independent readers to support the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill Jane Macdonald wrote in 2006: "This isn't about doctors or God: it is about patients... Until recently, I had breast cancer with bone secondaries that caused me a great deal of pain, despite partial control with strong pain-killers. Thankfully my cancer is in remission following treatment, although I still experience some pain. I also have multiple sclerosis... As a nurse I am aware that, despite the best medical care and the finest hospices, there is a chance of dying in pain and distress with a loss of my personal dignity. I would like the opportunity to choose the time and place of my death if life becomes unbearable."

After living with the constantly present fear of the form of her dying, Jane Macdonald quietly fell to Sir William Osler's "captain of the men of death" – pneumonia – in St John's Hospice, London. "If life deals you a lemon, make lemonade" was the philosophy of this vivacious nursing leader, who was always a campaigner, when she was sick as well as when she was well, always ahead of her time. To guide her she kept a copy of Florence Nightingale's Notes on Nursing on her desk.

She trained at the St Thomas's Hospital, where she became casualty sister. Then, coming from an Army family – she was the last child born in the barracks at Fort George – she enrolled in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (QAs) at the Cambridge Hospital at Aldershot, qualifying additionally as a Registered Mental Nurse and served as sister tutor (psychiatry) at Woolwich Military Hospital. Captain Macdonald, on leaving the QAs, had reservations about working for a "union" but as an official of the Royal College of Nursing proved a dynamic union leader. She revitalised the Student Nurses Section, putting student delegates into T-shirts to stress their presence at RCN congresses, for instance, and being an advocate for students.

From the nurses' "trade union" she moved on to the nurses' regulatory body, then the United Kingdom Central Council for Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors, where she became assistant registrar dealing with professional conduct, and where she first had to walk with a stick, as debilitating illness – osteoporosis as well as multiple sclerosis and cancer – closed in on her, eventually forcing her into early retirement in 1992.

With her positive approach to her condition she took a master's degree in business administration at Aston University and transferred her campaigning zeal to organisations helping other patients. She went in her wheelchair to collect for the Multiple Sclerosis Society at the local supermarket and to present a petition at 10 Downing Street as part of her advocacy for Dignity in Dying, on whose behalf she made numerous media appearances. She was a trustee as well as a client of the charity Dogs for the Disabled. She had two disability dogs herself, first Lennie, who worked with her for 10 years, and then Finn. They helped her with everyday tasks, opening and closing doors, picking up pens which, with her failing grasp, she kept dropping, nudged her up and down steps and were ready, should she fall in the house, to help her get herself up.

As a student at a sister tutor's course at the Royal College of Nursing Jane met the lecturer whom she married, Jonathan Pincus. "She was young, very pretty and had smouldering, sexy eyes," he recalled. "What is more she asked very intelligent questions. I remember that she had flowers on her fingernails." An ardent Scot who would have nothing to do with Sassenachs, a Macdonald who would have nothing to do with Campbells, thus married a South African Jew. (At 29 she became Britain's youngest health visitor). She was an enthusiastic traveller, even when a disabled one, and jokingly threatened to produce a book called Travels With My Catheter.

In her Independent letter, Jane wrote: "All I want is the right to choose: even if I never have to ask for help to die, I want to know that it is there for me. I have no intention of giving up my life, and I am fortunate to have been given more time to live through the excellent treatment and palliative care I have been given."

Jane Macdonald, nurse and campaigner: born Fort George 7 November 1948; sister, St Thomas's Hospital, London; Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps; sister tutor (psychiatry), Woolwich Military Hospital; head of students section, RCN; Assistant Registrar, UK Central Council for Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors; married Jonathan Pincus; died London 16 August 2009.