My father was diagnosed with cancer of the lower oesophagus and stomach after collapsing in the street due to anaemia. At that stage, he was already suffering from prostate cancer. 18 years earlier he had recovered from a cardiac arrest, followed over the years by several small heart attacks and severe angina.
In June 1997, my parents, husband and I, were all involved in a head-on car crash, which resulted in Dad fracturing his sternum and several ribs, but astonishingly, he clung to life until May 1998; he desperately wanted to stay around for Mother's Day, but died a few hours short.
We all had allied medical backgrounds, and were united in the decision to allow Dad to die at home, so at quite an early stage, we approached Palliative Care, and on odd occasions, someone called on Dad to see how he was, and just to introduce themselves.
Down the track, it became obvious that Dad needed a blood transfusion. We had been told that Dad needed 3 pints of blood, which would be administered very slowly, but in fact it was given very quickly. Dad had problems urinating, and as a result of the transfusion and diuretics, he was up and down every 10 minutes or less. Soon he was too exhausted to get to the bathroom. At some stage in the night, a young doctor tried for 4 hours to catheterise him, but failed at every attempt. By then, Dad was so sore he could no longer stand it. Mercifully, a doctor from another team, who came to see the patient in the adjoining bed, took pity on them, and inserted a supra-pubic catheter.
Dad was taken to theatre for an endoscopy. Following this, we took him home. Dad moved around as much as possible for a couple of days, trying to help Mum, who had quickly gone to pieces, so I moved in with them.
Within a few days, Dad’s health problems worsened significantly. One night, although heavily sedated by the morphine pump, dad cried out, but when I ran in to see what was wrong, he appeared to be asleep. His mouth and lips were covered in ulcers, and despite appearing to be comatose, if we tried to gently dampen his lips, he cried out and moved his head away.
As soon as my Dad became critical, Palliative Care disappeared. The Blue Care nurse and GP went into a huddle at the other end of the room to the P.C. lady, and then examined Dad without her, so she just walked out of the house and was never seen again.
When I asked the GP to help end Dad's suffering, I said that I understood that he couldn't risk doing much himself, but that if he would give us what we needed, I was prepared to do the rest. But he said that "we would all regret it for the rest of our lives" --what a foolish man he was.
I felt completely exhausted, having had no sleep for several days, and my husband kept collapsing with what we later discovered to be heart disease, so I asked for someone to spend the nights with Dad, so that I could go home to be with Len. The first night was uneventful, but the following day, at around 8 a.m., even the G.P. decided it couldn't go on any longer, and gave Dad an injection of something and left. A couple of hours later, Dad suddenly sat bolt upright in bed retching. I drove like a lunatic to the chemist to get something to stop the retching (Dad hadn't had anything to eat or drink for 10 days), and they let me have the drugs on a promise of a script to follow. I added this to the syringe driver and Dad settled.
That night, a Dutch lady arrived at bed-time to relieve me, and said that it wouldn't be long now. I re-loaded the syringe driver as usual, and went home to Len, after which she sent Mum to the spare bed. Mum said that she heard strange noises coming from the bedroom, and when she went to investigate, the nurse said that Dad had just died. I can only guess at what had taken place, but I have been eternally grateful to her. From my days in radiotherapy, working under an oncologist who ran the local hospice, I had long believed in a patient's right to die with dignity, and Dad's death was what triggered me to join VE.
My mother had a good death, and my younger brother having recently been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, and possibly lungs, is busy gathering information on how to avoid suffering as our Dad did.
My offspring and their families all live overseas, and because of the immigration policy, I cannot bring any of them over here to care for me, should the need arise. I do not trust the system to give me a good death, so I must soon decide whether to pack up and return to the UK (which I would hate), or make my plans to exit this world at a time, and in a manner of my own choosing. When someone has lost all dignity and independence, I believe that they should be given the right to die where and when they wish, with their loved ones by their side. They should not be forced to have a lonely death, rather than risk their friends and relatives facing prosecution, for showing them love, comfort and support in their final moments.
Heather Goldstein, November 2017