It is time to give people choices other than suicide
Lydia*, a nurse of more than 30 years, has watched as countless people die. She is urging Queensland legislators to “listen to the pleas of everyday people”, so terminally ill people have a legal option to end their suffering.
I am a nurse of over 30 years, starting as a student in the early 1980s.
One of the first people I saw who was dying was ironically someone who had been my school teacher. I still recall her name, and can still recall how distorted and wasted she was on the day we were taken, as a class of nurses just two weeks into our training, to see a patient with an enormous pressure sore on her sacrum.
She was fully lucid, and welcomed us into her tiny cramped room. She had advanced and obstructive bowel cancer, she was vomiting faecal fluid and the room smelled rancid, but she remained gracious and open in her communication with us.
She was in her 40s, and in her dying days she was still teaching us – how to be dignified in such a horrendous situation and making a difference to our lives.
She shaped my career, and taught me there and then what it meant to make a difference in the face of adversity, to never give up; she made me into a surgical ward nurse who would go on to care for many cancer patients on their final journey in life.
In my career I have seen the professional struggle of nurses and doctors, forced by law to keep patients alive and in pain, suffering because they could not and would not be the ones to take that pain away. Scared of the legal ramifications of such actions. Doctors afraid to order and administer morphine and other painkilling agents for fear it would be that patient’s last, and that the finger would be pointed at them.
I have been with many patients who have drawn their last breath, often suffering immeasurably in the process, lingering for one, two, three or more agonising days, struggling to breathe, choking on their own secretions and in immense pain beyond what any human should suffer.
I have watched the families sit through this, as they listened to their loved ones struggle just to draw a breath, each movement excruciating. I have seen parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles and lifelong friends all grieve whilst watching their loved ones suffer before dying; I have also been the one to hold the hand of the patients because their family could no longer bear to witness the agony, and they had left distraught; with the patient left to die alone.
I argued with a doctor on behalf of a patient once when he asked me to prepare the patient for the operating theatre and I disagreed with their decision. His response to me was “Nurse, you are not the one who has to go home at night and live with yourself, knowing you could have done more,” and he told me that an operation had to be offered, no matter how futile.
I disagreed. I still had to go home knowing we had operated on a patient for whom death was imminent, the post-operative course was painful and unnecessary. Its only purpose was to save the doctor from potential litigation by a family who could not be given the choice of assisted dying for their much-loved mother, so they chose a futile operation in the hope it would end her pain, and sadly it did not.
She could and should have been given adequate pain relief and comfort measures, which may have shortened her suffering by a few days. Instead, she suffered for days afterwards, before eventually passing on in pain and distress having undergone a pointless below-knee amputation.
We did all this in the name of caring, after taking an oath to do no harm. How can this be right? How can it be right that we force people with incurable illnesses and terminal illnesses to leave the country, and leave behind their loved ones so they can end their lives in countries where it is legalised.
The myths around assisted dying are just that – myths. It is not the beginning of a slippery slope as has been suggested by some leaders. It does not pose a threat to the vulnerable if implemented with appropriate safeguards and strict criteria applied.
We need to be given a legal right to be protected from unnecessary suffering, so there can be more compassionate choices available than starving ourselves to death, or violently taking our lives alone for fear of implicating others. It is time for Queensland to move forward.
We have advanced health directives that allow us to clearly state our wishes. Why not take it a step further and allow us to nominate our choices for assisted dying.
There are countries that have successfully enacted such laws and legislation. It is time to give people choices other than suicide or suffering if they are unfortunate enough to suffer an incurable life-impacting disease.
I ask you to listen to the pleas of everyday people like me, and I hope you are never in the position of wanting to make that choice to end your suffering, or that of a loved one - and not having the option available.
*Lydia’s real name has been withheld for privacy reasons.