For the second time in less than a decade members of our family are keeping a bedside vigil waiting for a loved one to die. My 85 yo father-in-law died, nine years ago, ostensibly from liver failure. In reality he had liver failure but once he refused to eat and was no long willing to take his medication, he was left to die of dehydration. I was part of his bedside vigil forced to watch him die slowly over three days. It is the most gut-wrenching and distressing thing I have ever done.
Now a 69 yo cousin is dying. After becoming unintelligible and immobile 3 weeks ago, a brain tumor was found. Surgery revealed it to be very aggressive for of cancer which, most probably, only began within the last 2 months. Her prognosis was, that with chemo and radiation, she had less than a year to live.
Early this week, before she could begin treatment, she collapsed at home. On being rushed to hospital, her skull was opened once again. This time they found that the remnants of the tumor were causing uncontrollable brain swelling. On Thursday, her husband was informed that she would never regain consciousness and life support should be removed. Knowing that various family members had planned to visit her when she recovered a bit from the first surgery, her husband said he couldn't remove life support until a sister holidaying overseas had a flown home and all the family members had had the opportunity to visit and say goodbye.
Yesterday my husband, his sister and I did a day-trip from Canberra to Sydney to visit her. Because she is dying, the ICU relaxed their two-people-at-a-time rule and everyone, as they arrived, was allowed to congregate in our cousin's cubicle. For her part, our cousin lay slightly propped up in bed, unconscious, swollen beyond recognition, drooling from the corner of her mouth, surrounded by beeping machines with a tangle of tubes snaking out of her arms and mouth. The staff claim she is not able to hear, yet she frequently appeared to respond when being spoken to. After two hours or so we said our goodbyes to the gathered family members and our cousin. It could have been just her eye weeping but as I said my goodbye to her a single tear slipped across her cheek. Her husband anticipated agreeing to removal of life support some time around 4 pm.
We were told that if she was unable to breath on her own then she would be dead within minutes of having the breathing tube removed. If she was able to breath unassisted, then it could take another couple of days for her to die. As of now, our cousin is still alive, surrounded by family members keeping vigil. Although we are no longer physically at her bedside, I am finding that the emotional distress of waiting for notification that she has died to be as painful as when my father-in-law passed. I do not understand why it is wrong to let our cousin have a swift painless death rather than letting her slowly dehydrate. The day or so her life would be shortened if assisted death were legal would not rob her of anything worth having.
It is appalling that the only legal options in situations like this is death by asphyxiation or dehydration. In any other circumstance, it is not legal, moral or ethical to deliberately asphyxiate or dehydrate another person. Yet when it comes to the morbidly ill a blind eye is turned. I do not believe the critically ill should be kept alive unnecessarily, but I strenuously object to their deaths being inhumane. Having experience the lingering deaths of two treasured family members, I cannot see why our country is dragging its feet in making voluntary euthanasia legal. I have no idea, given the choice, whether on not my father-in-law or our cousin would have chosen to have assisted deaths. As it currently stands they are denied the choice of how their live should end. That is neither moral nor ethical. If I have the choice and opportunity, rather than putting my family through the horror of a deathbed vigil, I will preempt a lingering death. Like many others, if assisted death is not legal, I will choose suicide. The law be damned. If at all possible, I plan to choose when and how I die.
As Andrew has reported, we can draw on the experience of countries where, for several years, assisted death has been legal in drawing up laws that safeguard every person's right to choose how they die. It is ridiculous that medical professionals can assist patients to die by asphyxiation or dehydration but not offer them a humane, swift and painless end to their lives. It is high time voluntary euthanasia were legalised.