Ramn Sampedro, a sturdy young seaman about to be married, went for a swim at his local beach in Spain's remote north-western region of Galicia. But that day in 1968 he misjudged the familiar shore and, dashed upon rocks, he was paralysed from the neck down.
The next 29 years he lay paralysed in bed, dependent on his family for every need. He became something of a national hero in his tenacious campaign for the right to receive help to die with dignity. Sampedro was the first Spaniard to battle in the courts for the right to assisted euthanasia.
With constant good humour, he explained that his life as "a head attached to a useless scrap of flesh" was actually a torment. "I am trapped in a dead body. My life is absurd and meaningless. As a rational person I want a rational death."
Sampedro started his fight in 1993. In 1994 he appealed to Spain's Constitutional Court, which dismissed his case on a technicality. He then went to the European Court of Human Rights who said that the resources of the Spanish courts had not been exhausted.
Meanwhile the Netherlands, the American state of Oregon, and Australia's Northern Territory all gave permission for assisted deaths. In November 1996 Galicia's provincial court of La Coruna agreed to reopen Sampedro's case and, with a clutch of helpers and a special vehicle supplied by an association for the handicapped, he made a rare sortie to attend the hearing in person. But this too ended in disappointment.
Sampedro started to write "to stop myself from going mad" by using a pointer held in his mouth, and in 1996 he published a book, Cartas desde el Infierno ("Letters from Hell"), about his experiences, his feelings of bitterness and his desire to die.
Sampedro had an extraordinarily alert and sociable personality. One miserable November day in 1996 he participated in a television debate in the Galician capital Santiago de Compostela. The wild westerlies were howling and he joked that they must wrap him up warm as he felt the cold.
After the show, he asked me to light him a cigarette, and with it clamped between his teeth, his gaze warm and lively, he explained why he drew no comfort from the Church. "It's all right for those who feel protected and guided by their religion, but I'm an agnostic. I'm a sailor, I love liberty. All I want is a welcoming harbour after death, a haven from this arid life that is for me only suffering." As he was wheeled back to his vehicle through horizontal sleet, he smiled and said "I can feel on my face. Give me a kiss." So I did.
Some months ago, he resolved to decide his fate, and moved into the nearby house of a woman friend. A secret autopsy will determine the circumstances of his death, but a letter and video apparently indicate that his desire for a dignified, assisted death was eventually fulfilled.
- Elizabeth Nash