Guest Post by Alwyn Poole, 1 February 2016
I had two fathers who died two quite different deaths. One, my birth father (who I never met), chose suicide assisted by a shotgun in his back shed. The other, the one who adopted me and brought me up, died of natural causes in his lounge – at home with his wife – in 2006.
Strangely enough, re the debate on euthanasia, it is the death of the second one I want to address. This should not be a nice trendy issue for someone to try and gain electoral support. It has stunning potential to become a slippery slope for a range of groups in society. It also has the potential to confer power to a group of people (doctors) who are highly fallible in a range of ways.
As I said – my adoptive father died naturally at home. His life almost did not end that way. A few months prior to his death I received a phone call at work that my father was “dying that day”. It was a Tuesday and he was in intensive care in a hospital in a small city in NZ. I had spent time there with him on the Sunday and had left him on the improve and, apparently, in good spirits.
Ray Poole was 67 years old at the time and had a terminal illness, emphysema, that had progressed. He was not in good shape having been one of those people who had worked incredibly hard (sometimes doing three tough jobs) to provide for his family and pay his taxes. He most certainly hadn’t helped his health by supporting the NZ sherry industry and overseas owned tobacco companies for a long period of time. His wife, my mother, had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and told she could go “any time” (which did not actually happen until seven years later. Luckily she was skeptical of certain timelines too). Her situation clearly was having an impact on him.
Back to the phone call and my dad dying “that day”. I caught a plane and got myself to his fair city. Drove to the hospital and walked into intensive care. With two questions:
- What was his condition?
- What has happened since Sunday to bring about such a change?
His condition was that he was unconscious and that his oxygen levels were having to be assisted by tubes in his nose. The “what had happened since Sunday” was more startling. Apparently since I had left he had refused food and drink and the staff had allowed him to do so (without notifying family). He was not dying of his disease – he was dehydrated and starving. I asked the nurse in charge how this was allowed. She told me that the “doctors had met and decided that he had no ’quality of life’ “. This had not been a discussion involving him, my mother, my brother (a nurse), or myself. After I had clearly informed them what I thought of this I then asked what their “plan” was.
Their plan had been to wait until I arrived and then send in a junior nurse with me to “turn off his oxygen and see what happens – then evaluate further.” So I followed her in and she did what she had been told to do by her authority figures. When she turned the oxygen off the saturation levels began to drop off a little. I then informed her that it was time to turn it back on. She refused telling me it was best that he “slip away now” (my brother, mother and I being treated like uninformed village idiots). She had made that decision but was clearly certain of support from her seniors (who had made sure that they were not there). I was brief and to the point in informing her that she was to turn the oxygen back on and she did so. I then asked for a syringe and a jug of water then sat and began to drip water into my father’s mouth. Twenty minutes later he woke up, sat up, and said: “Mate – I would do with another litre of that.”
I then did what I maybe should have done on the Sunday – I stayed and I cared. My dad slowly got better. It was clear that he wasn’t going to live for a long time but he packed life into the next few months. He cared for my mother, he spent time with his grandchildren, he talked with me every day. He passed away naturally when the time came.
Why had he refused food and drink earlier (and been so ably assisted in doing so)? He didn’t want to die but he thought he was being a burden. He thought he deserved it after all he had worked, smoked and drank his health away. He thought he was without hope. He was lonely and afraid of being alone. His wife was sick and, apparently, dying.
The staff at the hospital took for themselves a “right” and position that does not belong on human shoulders (regardless of what law gets promoted and maybe even passed). No human being should be put in a position to decide and assist. There are very good reasons that we hold that dying is a natural event and that to the absolute best of our collective ability we care for every human in our society until nature takes its course.
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