After the assault by his ex, Van Dongen suffered pain that no one can imagine, his father said
When Mark van Dongen’s father was shown to the ward at Southmead hospital in Bristol where his son had been taken after suffering acid burns to his face, body and limbs at the hands of Berlinah Wallace, he thought there had been an error.
“We entered the ward,” Kees van Dongen told the Guardian. “There were six rooms, one next to another. We looked in every room and we looked at every person in bed. At first I said there’s been a mistake, Mark is not here.”
A doctor arrived and told him his son was in room one. “The first room I had looked in. I failed to recognise my own son. His injuries were unbelievable.”
Staff had never seen such injuries. Burns covered 25% of Van Dongen’s body and much of the damaged skin had to be surgically removed. His face was massively scarred. He lost the sight in his left eye and most in his right.
When he arrived in hospital, Van Dongen, 29, could see enough of his injuries to scream and beg: “Kill me now, if my face is going to be left looking like this, I don’t want to live.”
After the attack by Wallace, Van Dongen spent four months in a coma in intensive care, fed through a tube and only able to breathe via a ventilator. His lower left leg had to be amputated.
When he woke he only had movement in his mouth and tongue and communicated by sticking out his tongue when his father pointed to a letter on an alphabet board.
Eventually he regained the power of speech – through a speaking valve – but was paralysed from the neck down. “I stayed by his bedside all the time,” said Kees van Dongen. “It went very bad. At one point he no longer responded to anything. He seemed to be falling into a hole. I stood by his ear and shouted really loudly, he seemed to come back.”
He described his son as a loving person. “He was a gentle man, everyone’s friend,” he said. “I often told him: ‘Mark, think about yourself.’ He was actually too good for this world, too kind. When he was a child he used to play marbles. When he won, four, five marbles and his opponent was crying he would hand them back. That was Mark all over.”
Why euthanasia was treated as murder
Van Dongen did well at university in the Netherlands, his home country, and moved to the UK, studying at Bristol University and then working as an engineer.
In around 2010 Van Dongen met and began a relationship with Wallace, a fashion student almost 20 years his senior. “I had the impression she was using him,” said his father, a 56-year-old supervisor who lives in Belgium. “I wasn’t sure about it, but he was in love with her. I think Mark was more in love with her than the other way round.”
He said he worked hard on his own relationship with Wallace. “I always treated her as my own daughter. She called me Papa Kees in court. I’ve always been very good with her.”
As Van Dongen lay in a coma, police began piecing together what had happened. It was a difficult and upsetting investigation for all concerned. His injuries were so severe that the senior investigating officer, DI Paul Catton, kept the images under lock and key.
Detectives established that in August 2015 the relationship broke down and Van Dongen began seeing another woman. In September 2015 Wallace bought a one-litre bottle of sulphuric acid online through Amazon. She removed the label and researched acid attacks. She told a counsellor she felt “she could destroy everything around her” when someone spoke out of turn.
Police records established that on the day she bought the acid, Van Dongen dialled 999 and told police that Wallace had been harassing him and his new girlfriend. A constable phoned Wallace and warned her under the Protection from Harassment Act.
It was not until 10 months after the attack – in July 2016 – that Van Dongen was able to fill in the blanks to police. On the evening of 22 September he had gone to her flat and stayed the night. In the early hours of the morning, he woke to find her laughing: “If I can’t have you, no one else will” – then throwing the acid.
Slowly, van Dongen’s condition improved slightly. He regained his speech but not any movement below the neck. He was diagnosed with depression. He would get agitated, abusive and angry with staff. He was unable to feed or wash himself or use a toilet. Sometimes he said that he wanted to live, at other times that he would prefer to die.
By November 2016, 29 specialists had been involved in his care at Southmead. It was clear that van Dongen would need a lifetime of constant and dedicated care and a care home in Gloucester was found for him. He moved there on 22 November 2016.
His father said: “I asked Mark, ‘Would you like me to help you with the transfer?’ Mark said, ‘Dad, I would like to do it myself, so at least I have got that bit of independence.’” Kees van Dongen returned to Belgium.
The next day, the phone rang. “It was Mark. He was completely distressed. He said: ‘Dad, please come.’ I drove straight to Gloucester. I arrived at five in the morning.” When he got out of the van, he heard screaming. “It was Mark. It didn’t stop. I was banging on the door. It opened. A woman came to the door. Mark was in the very first room at the entrance. What I saw there was horrific.”
He said his son was covered in his own faeces and distraught. “I calmed him down. I said: ‘I’m here.’ I went back to the van and fetched towels and flannels and I washed Mark. He said: ‘Dad, I’m coming with you to Belgium.’ He was scared. I said we’d work it out.”
Relatives and friends teamed up to find a way of getting Van Dongen out of the UK. They hired a private ambulance in Belgium and left for St Maria hospital in Overpelt without informing police.
“The doctors and nurses didn’t know what had hit them,” his father said. “They didn’t have a suitable ward because of the way he looked. That caused problems but he was admitted. They examined him, cleaned him and we went straight to the palliative care unit. He was given excellent care. I had a beautiful home at the time. I said to Mark: ‘Come with me.’ He said: ‘Dad, that would just be another ceiling to look at.’”
Van Dongen developed a chest infection and doctors told him a tube needed to be inserted into his throat to remove liquid, which would almost certainly have meant him losing his voice. Unable to bear the idea of not even being able to talk to his father, he applied for euthanasia.
He was examined by three consultants who confirmed that this was, in their terms, a case of “unbearable physical and psychological suffering” and they agreed he met the criteria for euthanasia under Belgian law.
“No one wants to live like that,” his father said. “I no longer left his bedside. He was constantly itching, I had to support his arm, try to relieve the nerve pain. There is membrane around the bones – it was full of holes, the sulphuric acid continued to burn. It was unbearable pain.”
The euthanasia was carried out on 2 January 2017. “Mark was actually quite positive,” his father said. “They wanted to take me out. Mark said: ‘No, I want my dad to accompany me on my last journey.’ At 7.15pm doctors checked he was absolutely sure and all the laws had been followed. A doctor came. They inserted a catheter into his heart. That was the end of my son.”
Kees van Dongen said he was determined to control himself when Wallace gave evidence. She accused his son of being controlling and violent and claimed she had believed that she was throwing a glass of water at him. “I promised Mark I would not miss a minute of the court case. Nothing could have kept me out of the courtroom.
“It was worse than if he had been shot. No one can imagine what Mark’s suffering was like, the horrendous pain, the misery that boy went through. Nobody can imagine it.”
Mark van Dongen’s family has set up an appeal to help Kees van Dongen with his legal fees and other associated costs. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/bart-vandongen