JOLLY READ is a long-time Freo local and journalist. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED she argues it’s long past time euthanasia was legalised in WA.
MY friend Dawne died recently. She died at home from cancer in her beloved Norfolk Street in Freo where she’d lived for many years and was a well-known local. She was 69.
The next day my Dad died. He died in a nursing home from the effects of dementia. He was 81.
Both Dawne and Dad would have liked the choice of dying with dignity.
As it was, both had been lucky enough to be in their own beds and cared for by people who loved and liked them in their last days. But it wasn’t easy.
By contrast, the parents of a friend of mine who lives in the Netherlands both chose assisted deaths and voluntary euthanasia in the past two years.
It was a perfect ending for them both; they chose their own timing and shared their last moments with the people they loved most in the world and were leaving behind—their three adult children.
When Christine first told me about her mother’s choice two years ago it seemed so sensible and sensitive. It was all very straightforward, supported by legislation and a medical system that allows a doctor to support a dying person’s last wish for death, avoiding the inevitable burden of suffering that shadows drawn-out palliative care.
Then just a few months ago, Christine’s father told her and his other children he had decided he no longer wanted to live. He had missed his wife terribly for two years and had battled on without her, supported by his family. But, at 92, the time had come, he said.
Again, the process offered to all people living in the Netherlands was followed and on the day and time of his choice, surrounded by his family, a doctor administered the drugs that led to his death.
Dawne did not have this choice. I know she won’t mind me talking about her because that’s exactly what she wanted. She made the point in her funeral notice and at her funeral service. Death with dignity, she said through friends’ voices, was something she wanted to be able to choose. She hoped things would change so others would have that right in the future.
Dad also had talked about this choice in his more lucid moments and before his dementia got its final hideous grip on him. His last few weeks of deterioration were sad to watch. He had lost the ability to swallow properly and so, in a way, he slowly starved, accompanied by infection and a bout of pneumonia, until his body could cope no more and he died.
He was lucky to have been in an environment that took great care of him during this past year as dementia slowly and insidiously ravaged his brain leaving him just a shadow of his former self. He was very lucky because, unlike the first nursing home he’d went to, this one was specifically built for dementia sufferers, and what a difference that made to his quality of life.
But it was a life he didn’t want and he had threatened to do something about that on several occasions when he was still living in his own home. He just didn’t know how. And the thought of getting it wrong scared him.
Dawne was brave: She read and researched as was her want. She was a doctor of human movement and health, interested in motor skills and coordination issues in children and adults, so research and the medical world were where she turned to for answers to her terminal cancer and how best to approach her imminent death.
She chose in the end not to continue with treatment but to live out the last remaining—as it turned out, six—months of her life at home and as well as she could. She was loved and respected by many people and her partner, her friends, her doctor and the Silver Chain cared for her in those last weeks.
She had wanted to choose the timing of her death but in the end she could not. Instead, she was at the mercy of morphine.
Dawne was not alone in her wish. According to a recent think-tank Australia21 report, most Australians want the option of assisted dying as they approach the end of their lives. The independent panel of experts says governments should immediately legalise voluntary euthanasia.
Dawne would be in strong agreement with emeritus professor Bob Douglas and others who authored the report because it calls for legislative changes to be introduced to catch up with community sentiment and people’s desire to have a choice.
As Dawne said in her obituary and as a last statement to the world: “Dawne would like all to know she has finally passed on. She would have preferred to have had more choice in where and how she died however current legislation in Australia on voluntary euthanasia did not allow her this option. With her passing, may we all be mindful of a person’s right to choose a death with dignity. Her heartfelt thanks go to all those who supported her through this time of terminal illness, enabling her to stay at home overlooking her garden, surrounded by love, colour, music and laughter. She would also like to thank the Silver Chain team who were wonderful. She sends her love to all and again says, ‘A peaceful death is everyone’s right.’”—LARKIN (Dr Dawne)