Far better help is available for patients in great suffering and distress than many people realise. A CMF member shares two stories she has included in her response to the assisted suicide consultation.
Liam McArthur MSP is currently holding a consultation on whether to introduce assisted suicide to Scotland. Last week we contacted our nurse members, many of whom would likely be put in the distressing position of seeing patients they had cared for, possibly for many weeks and months, requesting help to end their lives rather than support to relive their suffering. We asked them to respond to the consultation, sending them this Quick Guide to what a consultation is, with some general principles of how to fill one out, and this explainer giving more detail on the specific areas of concern in this consultation.
One of those who filled it in shared her response with us, and kindly permitted us to make it public. She has asked us not to share her name, but she is a palliative care nurse with many years’ experience. Here is some of what she said:
I recognise the enormous pain and anguish felt by individuals with a life-limiting disease, and that of their loved ones. However, I have been part of a dedicated and professional multi-disciplinary team, in several settings, involved in the care of a person who has a life-limiting illness. This has afforded me the opportunity to see some of the best that can be given in such settings. The skilled listening and dedicated clinical care has enabled many, many people to feel safe and cared for at what is often the most frightening and vulnerable time they could ever imagine themselves to be in. I strongly believe that many looking in on this debate have no idea of the depth of skill and care it is possible to achieve. They will understandably feel that if and when their turn comes, they would want to opt for assisted suicide as the only way out. As an alternative, I want to offer a couple of examples of what good end-of-life care can offer.
First, I recall a gentleman coming into the hospice begging just to be given drugs to die. (I saw this repeatedly over my career.) He was terrified. He had saved up a pile of pills that he had sneaked in with him in case we could not help him. The doctors and skilled social workers gave him listening time, and my role as a nurse was to do what we did for all our patients. We cared for him and for those in the beds around him. He watched us care for other equally ill people. He had his pain and distress eased. After a couple of days, he looked like a different person. His terrible terror and distress had gone. He was as much at peace as possible, and his equally distressed family were well supported. He died peacefully.
The second example is that of my own father. He was a medical doctor who specialised in the care of the elderly in Canada. A Christian man with huge compassion and deep faith. January 2020 saw him, aged 93 and fully mentally competent, in hospital asking for MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) as he was so distressed. I sat at his side as he asked the team to help him end his life. Mercifully, we had time to listen and enable him to divulge what was giving him such distress. He changed so much after offloading his deep emotional pain and had another year of life before his death in February 2021. Without a caring doctor and, dare I say, myself with some background in this area, our family may have had to see him end his life with unresolved and all-consuming distress.
These are just two examples of many experienced and supported by palliative teams.
I still recognise that we can never fully relieve pain, distress and fear. However, to suggest that when an individual reaches the point they have dreaded reaching, they can only ask for assisted death suggests that we have nothing left to help them with. They will feel dreadfully alone, isolated in their feelings, possibly frightened and certainly despairing of there being any way that a ‘stranger’ can help, when in fact, a skilled and compassionate palliative team can do more than they ever imagined possible to relieve them. I have had numerous patients and families say to me that they had no idea that there was such dedicated and skilled care possible or available for them, enabling them to find immense comfort in being cared for at a time of life they had dreaded reaching.
I would like to know that the skills and professional compassion required for people with life-limiting illness is well funded and that it will be possible for junior doctors and nurses to be mentored by these skilled colleagues in order that many more may be so supported. That was the wish of Dame Cicely Saunders. Her dream has yet to be realised.
The consultation closes on Wednesday, 22 December. Please do make use of the resources we have shared above and take some time to fill it in. You don’t have to be as eloquent as this member or to have had as much direct experience. If all you can do is tick the relevant boxes on the consultation survey, that is better than nothing. We’d love to make it clear to Holyrood (and by extension, Westminster) that many healthcare professionals oppose any legislation that would introduce ‘killing’ as a ‘treatment option’ for patients in their most vulnerable moments.