If I stare death in the face, I’d want the option to end my life

Like many people, I have been in the unfortunate position of having to care for relatives dying from cancer, says Trevor Laffan
If I stare death in the face, I’d want the option to end my life

The late Vicky Phelan campaigning for the Dying with Dignity Bill in 2020

THE results of a new poll commissioned by Dignity in Dying in the UK, and published this month, found 72% of people who have seen a terminally ill person experience pain or suffering support legalising voluntary-assisted dying.

The survey found that more than three in five people who support changing the law want reform in the next year.

Peter Boylan, the former master of the National Maternity Hospital, has said he also supports the campaign to legalise voluntary-assisted dying in Ireland and that the assisted dying debate “needs to be had”.

He said, “We all make life decisions and the decision to die is something that people who are in full control of their faculties and not influenced by other factors perhaps should be allowed to make.”

I didn’t take part in that poll, but if I did, I would have been part of the 72%. I’m not good with pain and suffering. I can tolerate the usual flu-like symptoms - a fever, sweating, the shivers - but I can’t even cope with a blocked nose.

I hate the thought of suffocating in my sleep, and I would rather prop myself up with a few pillows and read for the night, than close my eyes and succumb to the inevitable.

I can’t even watch other people struggling for air, and when I see someone trying to catch their breath, my own breathing automatically increases.

My biggest fear is that I would acquire a disease that would asphyxiate me. If I’m ever in that situation, I would like to know that there was an alternative available. Something that would allow me to check out at my time of choosing.

I’m not alone in this, and there is growing support for the idea but, at the moment, euthanasia is still a crime in Ireland.

The right to die debate is emotive, especially in a predominately Catholic country like Ireland, but talk of euthanasia, assisted suicide or mercy killing is a growing topic of conversation.

Because we’re living longer, we’re experiencing more age-related illnesses.

Modern medicine and machinery can keep us going for longer now, sometimes even when our bodies have thrown in the towel. But many believe we should be able to call time on our own lives instead of being sustained artificially, and I’m inclined to agree.

Spain’s parliament voted to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide for people with serious and incurable or debilitating diseases who wish to end their life. This made Spain the fourth country in the European Union to take that step, along with the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Canada and some U.S states also allow it while Switzerland allows assisted suicide but not euthanasia.

The new law will apply to adults with legal residence in Spain, but not everyone is happy. Some groups are determined to prevent it becoming law and will carry on the fight in court, believing that, despite the oversights, and the legal and medical requirements, euthanasia could be used for nefarious purposes.

That’s a genuine fear, but the strict protocols suggest that it is well regulated.

Opponents argue that it could put pressure on those requiring care to choose this option if they thought they were being a burden on those looking after them.

My sister-in-law, Carmel, died from Multiple System Atrophy (MSA). These symptoms are similar to Parkinson’s, and not unlike Motor Neuron Disease, and it does not respond to medication. It’s a horrible illness.

MSA is a progressive neurological disorder which causes problems related to movement, balance and other unconscious body functions such as bladder function, but deterioration is very individual.

As the illness progresses, more help is needed with everyday activities and it’s very difficult to watch someone deteriorating from it. If I ever had to face that diagnosis, I would be looking carefully at my options.

Like many people, I have been in the unfortunate position of having to care for relatives dying from cancer, including my parents and my sister. I say unfortunate, but there are two aspects to the experience.

On the one hand, it is a privilege to play a part in preparing a loved one for the end of their life. In my mother’s case, she came to live with me for the last few months and we were all able to spend time with her and give her the care she needed. I was delighted to have had that opportunity.

On the other hand, it’s extremely challenging. Without the support of family, friends and the medical professionals, caring for patients in their own home would be impossible.

Even with all that help, the time often comes when a professional facility becomes a necessity. It’s a difficult time for all involved and very stressful.

In my situation, the specifics were different in each case in terms of the length of the illness, surgeries and other treatments, etc, but the end result was the same.

The time eventually came when medicine lost out to nature, and it simply became a waiting game.

They each reached a stage where it was just a matter of trying to keep them as comfortable as possible for the time they had left.

With no hope of recovery in sight, the focus changed to pain relief.

My mother was fortunate in that she didn’t suffer. Her GP ensured that her last few months were comfortable, and she remained alert which was what she wanted. As deaths go, it was probably as good as you can get, but not everyone dies easily.

When there is no prospect of a recovery and pain, incapacity and death are inevitable, I think it would be comforting to know I had the option of ending it on my terms.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Echo 130Echo 130

Podcast: 1000 Cork songs 
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Crowley talks to John Dolan

Listen Here

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more