Failing to Understand Death & Dying

February 11, 2010

Dr Megan Best (a CASE Associate) will be one of the major speakers at a medical ethics conference being run by CASE on the 27th March 2010 titled 'Christian Perspectives on the End of Life'.

Due to the success of our first conference in 2009, 'Medical Ethics: Perspectives on Life and Death', we have decided to run a second Sydney forum in 2010 for those interested in Christian views on the end of life. Speakers will include Dr Best, Frank Brennan, Russell Clark and Kate Bradford.

Dr Best wrote an interesting titled ‘The truth about dying’ for ABC News online recently (8th Feb). Her piece serves as a foretaste of just some of the issues that the conference will deal with. The following is an extract of what Dr Best wrote.

The Extract

I am a palliative care doctor. I look after people who are terminally ill. Let me tell you about a patient I looked after many years ago, during my training. Due to the usual department rotations of medical training, I had been on the spot when he was diagnosed with lung cancer—a tall Lebanese gentleman with an impressive moustache, patriarch of a large immigrant family

I had not seen him for some time, and when he appeared in the ward again, I could see that things had not gone well.

He was a shadow of his former self, gaunt and grey, though the moustache valiantly lingered on. It was like seeing an old friend; any familiar face is welcome in such a setting.

We soon were able to control his symptoms of pain and breathlessness with the appropriate medication. He did, however, continue to suffer.
I asked him what had been the most difficult experience of his illness. His answer surprised me, back then, though it would not now. Despite the trials of discovering he had cancer, experiencing the ravages of chemotherapy, battling with pain and breathlessness and increasing debilitation, the thing that had been most difficult for him was his loss of position in his family.

He no longer ruled the clan, his illness had resulted in a demotion. He found this intolerable, he wanted his authority back, and he wanted more time with his family.

Like most of my patients, thoughts of euthanasia did not cross his mind as a response to his suffering. He wanted more time, not less.
I have always found striking the discrepancy between the public support for euthanasia (among those who are healthy) and my patients’ desire for continued life. I was informed of a recent poll which claimed that 87 per cent of Australians support legalisation of euthanasia.

Research done on palliative care populations, however, tells a different story. A study done some years ago in Sydney found that less than one per cent of those referred to a palliative care service made persistent requests for euthanasia.

My own observation is that things haven’t changed much since then. Why the disparity?

I think there are many reasons why this is the case. The absence of death in everyday life no doubt contributes - it is a remote event often occurring in hospitals, and many of us base our understanding of what really happens on hearsay. And hearsay, especially from the distant past, has some horrifying stories to tell.

Yet I think the main reason why our community voices such strong support for euthanasia is because it has been confused about some accepted end-of-life practices which are already legal, but poorly understood. These include withdrawal of life-prolonging treatment and symptom control.

The Conference

If you’d like to hear more from Dr Best or some of our other speakers please consider registering for the conference. You can find details on how to register HERE.

Related Posts

Talks by Dr John Wyatt at the 2009 New College Lectures titled ‘Bioethics and Future Hope’ (here)

Previous post on ‘Matters of Life and Death’ (here)

Other resources on medical ethics on the CASE website (here)

Case magazine on the theme 'Living and Dying Ethically' (here)

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