Vincent Lambert: The man at the centre of a French right-to-die case

A woman holds a placard reading ‘I am Vincent Lambert’ during a protest in Paris, France. (AFP pic)

PARIS: Before, he was a rebellious teenager who became a psychiatric nurse in France, but then suffered brain damage in a road accident. Today, Vincent Lambert is the silent presence at the heart of an emotional right-to-die case that may be ending as doctors are set to begin removing life support.

He had just turned 32 and was due to become a father when his life was changed forever by a car crash in 2008 near his home in the northeastern French town of Chalons-en-Champagne.

In a vegetative state for the past 11 years, his fate has been the subject of a long-running legal battle between his deeply Catholic parents, who want to keep him alive, and his wife Rachel, who believes he should have the right to die with dignity.

His eight siblings have also been pulled into the fray, with six of them backing his wife, and two others supporting his parents in a tussle over passive euthanasia that has made headlines in France and beyond.

“He is minimally conscious but he is not a vegetable,” his mother Viviane pleaded this week in a desperate last-ditch appeal to the UN’s top rights body after France’s highest appeal court said his life support could be halted.

But for his wife, the fight is about what Lambert himself would want: “Keeping him artificially alive and totally dependent? For him, that would be unacceptable,” she has said.

Before the accident, Lambert was a thrill-seeker who loved to party and was once expelled from school, family members told AFP.

“He sometimes went to extremes, but at the same time he was secretive, withdrawn and ill-at-ease,” younger sister Marie once said in an interview with AFP.

Hardly surprising, coming from a large family of nine children, which his nephew Francois Lambert described as “riddled with secrets and things left unspoken”.

Catholic school reject

On September 20, 1976, he was the first child born to Vivianne and Pierre Lambert, who each had children from a previous marriage.

When his parents met, his father was a gynaecologist and active anti-abortion campaigner, who had two children before falling for Vivianne, who was his secretary at the time.

She was a mother-of-three and 16 years his junior.

Devoutly Catholic, the pair eventually got married and went on to have four children of their own, with Vincent the sixth out of a total of nine children.

Like the rest of his siblings, Lambert was sent at 12 to a strict Catholic boarding school in southwest France, but was thrown out because of his “rebellious spirit”. He went on to finish his studies in the northwestern city of Reims.

“Since then he has always distanced himself from our parents’ ideology, like most of us,” Marie said.

After school, he studied nursing with a specialising in psychiatry, which took him to various hospitals in the region where he met Rachel, also a nurse. They married in 2007.

Barely 18 months later, while Rachel was heavily pregnant, Lambert was out driving when he got caught up in a near-fatal road accident in Chalons-en-Champagne where they were living.

‘One of the living dead’

What exactly happened remains unclear, but he was rushed in critical condition to the intensive care unit in Reims where doctors found him to have suffered irreversible brain damage, leaving him a tetraplegic.

And he has never left.

He is behind a locked door on the fourth floor of the city’s Sebastopol hospital, where a camera keeps a close eye on visitors given the glare of publicity the case has brought on.

Over the years, his family have seen his condition deteriorate, his muscles wasting away, a grimace on his face. Sometimes he cries out.

During his time as a nurse, Lambert often said he would never want to be “artificially kept alive”, those close to him say, but he never put anything down on paper.

“Vincent would never have wanted to live in such a diminished and dependent state,” his sister Marie told AFP five years ago.

“He is already one of the living dead and for what?”

‘Emotional memory’

Dr Eric Kariger, who at the time was head of the hospital’s palliative care unit, said medical staff had never been able to communicate with him, even briefly.

Although experts acknowledge he has a capacity for sensory expressions, like smiling or shedding tears, they describe it as the result of “emotional memory”.

“His body expresses things, mainly suffering, but he is not conscious of his physical body,” his doctor has said.

His 73-year-old mother, and his father, 90, are still fighting, despite their advanced years and have said that removing his feeding tube would amount to “murder”.

“Vincent is doing well. He’s not at the end of his life,” his mother said in May. “You can see it in his eyes. He only needs something to drink and to eat and some love.”

Now 38, Rachel Lambert has moved to live in Belgium after coming under repeated attack online over her stance.

She has an 11-year-old daughter who was born just two months after the accident and has written a book about her experience, entitled, “Because I love him, I want to let him go.”