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Why this doctor changed his mind about voluntary assisted dying

Melbourne oncologist Dr Phillip Parente, a one-time conscientious objector, says he now feels comfortable with offering patients assistance to die. 'I believe it's the right thing to do'.

Dr Phillip Parente sits in his office.

Before Victoria legalised Voluntary Assisted Dying in 2017, Prof Phillip Parente held very strong views about medical assistance to die.

“I was against it. I'm a Roman Catholic, it's always been integral in my life. My wife’s name is Mary and my son’s name is Joseph,” he laughs.

Prof Parente is director of cancer services at Eastern Health in Melbourne. He sees his work as more than just a job.

“It's a place where I think I can be the complete doctor. I get to see someone at the beginning of their diagnosis, and go through them with the whole journey, through all their successes, their challenges. And when one of my patients dies, I don't see it as a failure. If I've made that journey better, painless, and with dignity, I consider that I've done my job.”

Like many doctors, Prof Parente invoked his legal right to opt out of involvement in VAD when the law came into effect in June 2019.  “I said, ‘look, I am a conscientious objector'.” If he received a VAD request, he would refer them on to one of his colleagues.

But about six months in, he started getting more inquiries from his patients. After a while he began to feel uncomfortable about referring people on who he’d been looking after for up to five years.

His doctor’s conscience couldn’t rest. A loud voice in his head kept asking:

“How can I really offer my patients that complete care that I pride myself in and let them down right at that point in time when they need me the most?”

“This is part of their disease journey and I need to be there for them as their oncologist… if they've got the guts to ask for it (VAD), then I should have the guts to enable that to happen.”

The first person he helped through the VAD process had a powerful impact on his thinking. “A young person, younger than myself, with end stage cancer, with an amazing wife, full of courage, and with young children, and who had bad disease.

“It was just a privilege. I learned a lot from that patient about courage, about respect. And that the cancer may have killed them, but they had defeated the cancer in my opinion.”

Now a VAD practitioner who has helped  more than a dozen people through the VAD process, he can attest to the palliative effect simply receiving the medication can have.

“It's quite an amazing sight. They feel definitely more at ease, less anxiety, and they feel more in control. It doesn't necessarily mean they take it. Just having the option there gives them control and gives them hope.

And the response from his medical peers? “Apart from a few negative comments, the response is, ‘Good on you,’ really. I've reconciled it within myself, and if I feel comfortable with it, and I believe it's the right thing to do.”

Hear more from Prof Parente and other doctors involved in voluntary assisted dying in Victoria in Better Off Dead (S2), episode 4,’ Do No Harm’

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