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It is Venessa's time to have a voice

I am a senior pain specialist. I lost my wife three years ago. At the age of 42 and after living with leukaemia for 14 years she was dying and took her own life one day when I went to work. 

Gavin's wife, Vanessa.

It was a good death for her.  On her terms when she wanted. She was also a doctor and chose the end she wanted. The smartest person I have ever met.  She did not tell anyone, not even me. She couldn't because of the draconian laws in our state at the time.

She did not have the support of a voluntary assisted dying law, such as the one about to be debated in the NSW Parliament. She did not have the option of telling me or others about her choice, or seeking our assistance, which a VAD law would have provided her.

With my perspective as both doctor and husband, I pose some questions:

Are there people who need VAD but do not have pain, and instead have conditions such as worsening shortness of breath as a complication of their cancer treatment, and for whom no medication or procedure can stymie its crippling advance? Yes.

Are there people who are not depressed or sad, who are surrounded by love and not at all lonely, who will choose VAD? Yes.

Are there people who have been forced to end their lives alone without saying a proper goodbye to their loved ones because VAD was not legalised? Yes.

I know, because these were the exact circumstances for my wife. She had no alternative but to follow this path. The dignity denied to her, however, was that she could not say goodbye to all the people she loved and who loved her in return. Had she told us, and had we helped, we could have been implicated in the crime of assisting her death.

She did not choose the easy way out. For 14 years she had lived with an aggressive leukaemia and undergone countless painful and distressing treatments. Always she had loved ones by her side. Her lungs had been destroyed by the treatments and a slow cruel death by asphyxiation awaited her.

Just two days before she ended her life alone, we had merrily celebrated her 42nd birthday at her favourite Sydney restaurant.

The day she chose was like any other for me.

She gave me a big hug with tears in her eyes before I rushed out the door to do an anaesthetic for a caesarean section. “I’m just going to work,” I thought to myself. “I’ll be back.”

Without the legal protections of a VAD bill, my wife must have known she could give nothing away. It took her immense strength, courage and a selfless love for others to choose to die alone. She could not risk her loved ones being prosecuted.

Patients can be and are given excellent care in the terminal phases and this must continue to be an option for those who choose it.

I provided the love of a husband, had the compassion of a doctor and the skills of an experienced pain management specialist, and yet my wife chose an alternative path for herself.

Sometimes it is the silent people who are your greatest supporters, they just don't have a voice for whatever reason. I've kept quiet for years for so many years. Now it is time. It is Venessa's time to have a voice." 

- Dr Gavin Pattullo

This is an edited version of an opinion piece that was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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