Maker of things beautiful and strong
Could fix it all
Except his own health
Myelofibrosis corroded everything but his mind
And his indomitable heart
Uncomforted by the world
Trapped in a prism of distress
His moribund body unable to walk, to sit, to stretch out
For month upon month upon month
Had had enough
Said his goodbyes
Could endure no longer
We knew it would come
Ringing across the island
The recoil knocked us all out of focus
I hear its echoes every day
But never begrudge the release it brought
- Amanda Collins, 2015
In 2005 nurse Cathy Pryor was convicted of the attempted murder of her mother and assisting the suicide of her father. Both were grievously ill, her father in the last weeks of liver cancer. In a decision imposing a two-year non-custodial sentence, the Tasmanian Supreme Court judge found that Cathy had acted out of love and compassion.
These excerpts are from Cathy’s interview for the podcast Better Off Dead.
Dad knew his death was going to be horrible; he was going to die of liver failure. You become poisoned, basically, you become distressed, you become agitated, you lose your mind, and he just didn’t want that. He was having bronchial spasms, where you choke. Your throat constricts and you cannot breathe and you choke. There is nothing they can do about that either. So, some nights he would spend two or three hours choking.
Dad started talking about trying to either drown himself in the bath or to try and wrap the bell cord around his neck, because by this stage his legs were swelling but he also had terminal hiccups, which is where you just hiccup for hours and hours on end, and it is exhausting.
I went in one day and he said, ‘Last night I choked so much I lost consciousness. And I had a near death experience.’ He said it was wonderful. He said it was just amazing and he said, ‘I so want to go. I just want to go.’ So I said, ‘Look, Dad, if you really want to go that badly, I’ll take you home and I will help you.’
I collected him (from the palliative care unit) and we went home to his house, and we walked around the garden. He had a walking stick and off we went. He was so calm. We looked at all of his fruit trees and he told me how to prune the fruit trees to make sure people ate the apples and what to do with raspberries.
It was quite surreal and finally he said, ‘No, I’ve had enough. Let’s go and have a glass of wine.’ So we had a glass of wine, and he said, ‘Now’. I said, ‘Dad, do you really want to do this?’ And he said, ‘I am so happy. This is wonderful. I am going.’ He said, ‘You are so brave to help me do this.’ And I just said, ‘Look, hopefully when my time comes, someone will help me.’
I assisted my father, a retired GP, as he injected himself with a cocktail of drugs. I remember him saying, ‘I feel really sick, I feel sick as cat.’ He said, ‘Quick, give me some more.’ Finally – we did not talk much – he lost consciousness. One thing he had said before he died was, ‘Don’t let me survive. Whatever you do, do not let me survive.’
I went home and got rid of the syringes and all the rest of it and came back and he was still alive, I mean deeply unconscious but he was alive…finally I put a pillow over his head until he died. Enough time has gone by that I can reflect on what happened. I’m still angry. I mean it has faded.
I have a conviction for attempted murder, there are a lot of jobs I cannot get. It still affects me like that, but I think overall I’m angry at the suffering. People shouldn’t have to suffer. Why, if someone’s got two weeks to live and they are in agony, they know they’re going to die, why do they have to endure the agony to the end?
If I could have my parents back I could look them both in the eye and I’m sure they would say thank you. I don’t have any regrets: I just regret that it was not allowed to happen in a legal way.
- Cathy Pryor, 2005
I am now retired but one case of the unfortunate result of the lack of an option for assisted dying sticks in my mind. He was a fit man in his forties who worked in the local council office and who was a low handicap golfer at the local club. He developed a rapidly aggressive form of multiple sclerosis and within eighteen months had become very disabled and only able to walk with difficulty using a walking stick.
At a visit to his home, in the presence of his wife, he asked me if I would assist him to die. I wanted to but my mind froze with the thoughts of a possible murder trial and the loss of my licence to practice. He was a practical man so did without my input. He asked his wife to go into the town to buy some magazines then called the police to say he was going to kill himself so that his wife would not find his body. He then shot himself.
That a man should have to do this in civilised society is a great indictment of the maturity of that society. Another case which has worried me is a man in his sixties with late stage pharyngeal carcinoma with all its horrors. I was looking after him in the local 20-bed hospital but I did not bring up to him the possibility of my hastening his death and he was unable to speak due to the choking effect of the malignancy.
He asked to be transferred to a private hospital in Launceston where he died a couple of weeks later – I gather very uncomfortably. I spoke to his wife after as to whether he would have liked me to help him out and she said, ‘Didn’t you see him jabbing at his arm like you injecting him?’ By this stage I would have arranged something. There is no palliative care for pharyngeal carcinoma apart from long-term complete sedation.
- Dr Geoff Trezise, first published in The Damage Done, August 2016
“You wouldn’t let your dog suffer the way I am suffering”
Those were the words my maternal grandfather said to my mum shortly before he died of cancer in 1985. Full circle to 2016 and my mum was saying the same to me. She had been a strong advocate for euthanasia from when she had to watch her father dying by small degrees over weeks and weeks of endless pain.
My mum, Zelda, had emphysema and an irrational fear of hospitals and doctors. I believe this fear stemmed from watching her father go through such horrifying pain and the doctors not being able to put him out of his misery, even though he was begging them to day after day.
On the 15th of August 2016 my mum, not for the first time, sat on the side of her bed thinking about taking her own life. What stopped her was not knowing how to make sure as she said she “did the job properly to leave this mortal coil” without medical assistance to support her. She was terrified that if she didn’t do it properly she would be worse off than she already was.
For my mum her worst nightmare came to pass on 8 September when she couldn’t breathe and I had to call an ambulance. This was to be her one and only trip to hospital during her extended illness and it was weeks and months after the time she had long had enough of existing. If not for the terror of not being able to breathe, due to contracting a chest infection, she would never have allowed me to call an ambulance that night.
Over the next week she deteriorated, both mentally and physically, in the hospital until on the 15th of September she took her last breath. At the end she was only 28 kilos, a skeleton with skin, who finally let go. It breaks my heart all over again to think how long she suffered, how often she had said she wanted to die, how that last month in particular was its own kind of torture for her every day.
From a young age I have been an advocate of euthanasia, seeing my grandfather fade away to nothing set it in my psyche at 15. To then see it in my own mother only reinforced it for me. No one should have to suffer such physical and mental anguish, we are better than that as a society.
Five months after her death my pain is still raw, but not as raw as it was for her living through her day to day existence.
- Kate Roach, March 2017