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A Brave Life, A Merciless End

My husband Russell was ill for 20 years – ten of those in chronic pain, riddled with arthritis in his spine. Even after all that time, when he was first diagnosed with neuroendocrine lung cancer, he was ready to fight – to throw everything at it.

He was so proud, so brave.

Little did either of us know, he’d have just three months to live, and the last three weeks would be ghastly: Trapped in the trauma of pain beyond anything that could be medically treated, with neither dignity nor the capacity to communicate.

Before he was admitted to hospice, he was not afraid to die but he would say he was afraid of how he would die.

Before he was consumed in a world of nothing but pain – absolutely nothing but pain – he begged for release, to hasten the end. But under WA law, we couldn’t help him.

He was monstered by his pain – physically, mentally and emotionally.

His story might be hard to read – believe me, it’s hard to tell – but now is not the time to whitewash the facts, to sanitise how he suffered to keep everyone else a little more comfortable.

We are supposed to be a civilised nation but, as my husband would say, we wouldn’t allow a dog to suffer as much and as long as he did.

Our politicians have a moral obligation to understand the facts and hear what really goes on in the lives of those with unrelenting terminal pain who die in horrific circumstances.

Russell was even stripped of comfort from human touch in his last weeks, as it caused unbearable nerve pain and his excessive body heat, from haywire hormones, deprived him from having any more than two people in his room at once.

He was promised that when going into hospice, his pain levels would be managed. But he was in the very small minority where his pain couldn’t be treated medically. His doctor permitted, written in Russell’s medical notes, “break-though” medication of extra morphine.

But under WA law, medics who attended to him in the middle of the night – his face in a locked grimace, his body contorted with pain – could refuse to follow the specialist’s orders, on the grounds they feared any more morphine may be fatal.

In those last two weeks in hospice, I sat by his side day and night, too scared to sleep, fearing he would break his weakened spine – as happened to a man up the corridor – as pain shocked his body.

Three years on and I still can’t sleep properly, haunted by images of my husband reduced to a skeletal figure, in a nappy.

There was no mercy for my husband Russell – a deeply private man of a strong, athletic build; a surfer, a “specimen of splendour” who would turn heads at the beach and loved the outdoors.

We lived in the Busselton area where I was a deputy school principal. Russell had suffered with me through the trauma of three stillborn babies, five miscarriages and the death of the darling little Tibetan terrier called “Teddy” who had been treated as like our only child for 15 years.

During those heartache years, Russell was my rock. He supported me though the laboured birth of our children whose lives were already gone, the loss of our family legacy together and my searing pain of endometriosis.

It was when we lost our last baby in 1995, that Russell’s arthritic pain first came.

By August 2015, when his white blood cell count was so low he couldn’t receive the second round of chemotherapy, he had suffered enough.

But not according to our lawmakers.

The people of WA need to be allowed to choose medical assistance to ensure a more hasty and dignified death for those who suffer like my Russell did.

Anything less, is barbaric and immoral.

– Peta Quinlivan, February 2019

If you're in Western Australia and believe Russell should have had a choice to end his suffering, raise your voice.

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