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After years of pain from spinal disease, 40-year-old Paralympic champ ends her life

Marieke Vervoort, a four-time Paralympic medalist, chose to legally end her own life in her native Belgium after suffering from a degenerative spinal disease.
/ Source: TODAY

Paralympic champion Marieke Vervoort has died by euthanasia in her native Belgium after deciding to end her life while suffering from a degenerative spinal disease with no cure.

Vervoort, 40, who won a gold and a silver medal in wheelchair racing at the 2012 Paralympics and two more medals at the 2016 Games, died Tuesday, the Belgian city of Diest confirmed in a statement to The Associated Press.

Paralympian Marieke Vervoort ended her life through euthanasia, which is legal in her native Belgium, after suffering from a degenerative spinal disease. Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images

She had said in an interview at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro that she was considering the decision to end her life after the Paralympics were over.

"I feel different about death now than years ago,” Vervoort said, according to the AP. "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.”

Vervoort signed euthanasia papers in Belgium in 2008 that gave her the right to end her life when she wanted. For decades, she suffered from a form of progressive tetraplegia that caused paralysis in her legs and often left her in agonizing pain and suffering from seizures.

"I don’t want to suffer any more,” she told The Telegraph of London in a 2017 interview. "It’s too hard for me now. I get more and more depressed. I never had these feelings before. I cry a lot. Now even my eyesight is disappearing.

"An optician saw me and rated one eye two out of 10, and the other just one. He said there was nothing he could do, because the problem was coming from my brain. Then a neurologist stayed with me the whole night while I had one spasm after another. She said it wasn’t an epileptic seizure but just the body screaming, ‘I’m in so much pain. I’m done.’”

The pain from her disease sometimes left her able to only sleep 10 minutes a night.

“I can’t sleep at night,'' she told The Telegraph. "My psychologist knows it. I want her to be with me when I die. She works at the hospital but even she says, ‘It is a lot that you are going through. I have never seen anything like this.’”

Image: Marieke Vervoort
Despite her painful disease, Vervoort won four medals combined in wheelchair racing between the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. Mauro Pimentel / AP

Vervoort was comforted in her final years by her service dog, Zenn, who helped her pick things up off the floor and sensed when she was about to suffer from a seizure.

"She will stay with me forever,'' she said. "I could not even imagine giving her away.”

Vervoort also became a strong supporter of Belgium's law allowing people the right to choose euthanasia.

"If I didn’t have those (euthanasia) papers, I think I’d have done suicide already,'' she said in the 2016 interview in Rio. "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 was at peace with her decision at the end, spending her final night with friends and family and a glass of sparkling wine, according to the AP.

"The people will cry, but I want them also to give thanks for the life I had, for the fact that I’m happy now,'' she told The Telegraph two years ago. "I’m at peace."