Dignity in death
‘Serendipity’ brings to mind instances of happy and mutually-beneficial coincidence. Sadly, a few experiences I’ve had over the last couple of weeks have put ‘serendipity’ into a more solemn context and one that, for me at least, is of increasing importance in current debate at private, political and moral levels. Finally removing the last diaries, books and personal treasures from my mother’s beautiful apartment into my crammed garage, I came across an address book that had several newspaper items saved at the back. With date and publication in my father’s clear and firm architect’s hand-writing was one yellowed cutting identified as ‘Australian 24/2/76’. The excerpt is titled ‘Doctor chose a dignified death’. The doctor in question was Dr Leslie Nye (aka ‘Bill’ Nye) and the piece opened with: ‘Dr Leslie Nye, 84, was buried yesterday – delivered by his own hand “into the comfortable, perpetual sleep of honourable euthanasia”. And in a Brisbane geriatric hospital Dr Nye’s World War I batman, aged 94, lies unknown and indifferent – as sound in body and mind as modern medicine can keep him. Dr Nye did not want to be saved for a similar fate’.
The article went on to recall Dr Nye’s associations with some of the great philosophers of our time, naming Sir Julian Huxley, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Sir Mark Oliphant and the Mayo brothers. Further into the article Dr Nye’s son (a doctor) recalls ‘For the past two years he had been visiting his old batman who doesn’t know where he is or what he is doing, but they won’t let him die. My father did not want this to happen to him.’ The serendipity starts with my mother, also aged 94, in high-level care not knowing where she is or what she is doing. But there is more to this sad recounting of coincidence.
My mother studied medicine and later specialised in physiology, teaching at the University of Queensland. The most important person in her life was her father, Dr Charles August Thelander, an internationally-renowned doctor, rationalist and humanist (who counted Kerensky amongst his close associates) and great personal friend of Dr Nye. It was recognised by both families that there existed a euthanasia pact between these ageing medical professionals. My grandfather had Parkinson’s disease to a severely disabling degree and his answer to a dignified end of life was to ‘guinea pig’ himself to an innovative brain/cranial surgical procedure to isolate and remove/freeze the hyperactive motor neuronal section of his brain in an experiment to stop the disease. About a week after this operation, I visited my grandfather with my mother and offered him a sweet that he liked. His hands still trembled and his fingers ‘pill-rolled’ so the operation hadn’t worked. The story went that the heavily and rigorously attached head bandaging ‘fell off’ a few nights later causing him to bleed to death. No, he managed this himself, just like his friend Bill Nye. Then, this week, there arrived in the mail a beautifully presented and worded notification of the death of one of my mother’s very great friends. Over the last couple of years my mother tried to keep contact with several of these friends – from one in America, to Anna in Melbourne to this friend near Bundaberg – but the phone numbers no longer worked. In some instances I had been able to follow family connections to reconnect these ladies and let them chat and reminisce long-distance.
It was the sentiment of this notice of a woman dying just short of her 94th birthday that resonates: (This) is not an occasion to mourn as (she) had said she had lived a good life and was ready to go. Thankfully she retained full capacity and was able to have great conversations and share memories with us children right up until the end when thankfully she passed comfortably and with the dignity she deserved. To add to this confluence I recently took some artworks to decorate the bare walls of a woman, aged 93, who has befriended my mother at her high- care facility. Still sharp of mind and physically independent, this little lady sat there thanking me for the gifts and repeating her wish ‘If only there was a button I could push! …a button that I and your mother could push.’
For my mother’s 94th birthday (celebrated at a very smart restaurant) earlier this year friends and family asked me what gift she would like, so I repeated to my doctor and vet relatives her request for ‘some Nembutal’ to have on hand. This was the death of love and compassion that she had sourced for so many pets and that she now wanted at her own discretion. Not one felt that they could legally respond to this very valid and deeply earnest request. So now here my very clever and capable mother is: sitting in the recreation room watching men and women supine on stretchers either yelling to the ceiling or semi-comatose being hand-fed and hand-held by excellent staff who too often replace family. She can no longer complete a sentence or train of thought, is incontinent, can hardly walk and has forgotten how to chew. I wonder if she realises that she, too, could soon be strapped to a stretcher (possibly for years) yelling incoherently as the last of her human capacities fade. With media and politicians realising the huge financial and emotional cost of an ageing population there stands a group of moralists who are preventing death with dignity for people now living beyond previous human life capacity due to modern medicine. So it is to medicine that we must ethically turn and ask for ‘The Button’ or ‘The Pill’ for those that are ready to go. If we saw a dog or cat being maintained beyond their natural capacity to live independently we could call this animal cruelty. To not allow a human the dignity of choosing ‘the comfortable, perpetual sleep of honourable euthanasia’ is cruelty. My mother can no longer be ‘dignified to the end’.
I am not an occasional visitor. I visit my mother every second day and know the staff, many residents and some of their families. For every resident in charge of their ‘humaneness’ there are perhaps five that are reduced to just ‘beings’.
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