It is not every day that a 73-year-old man begs you to kill him.
Late afternoon on 1 February my mother rang my office line. I was busy and decided to let it go to voicemail, thinking to myself I would call her back later.
A minute later my mobile phone rang. It was Mum again. I picked up sensing something was amiss.
She was breathless on the phone, “John has been admitted to emergency, we are at Manly Hospital.”
This is how I learned that my (step)father, the man who has been more of a father to me than my biological father, and who was the healthiest, strongest, and most youthful 73-year-old I had ever known, had breathing difficulties the day before, so my mother convinced him to go to their GP with her because she suspected he might have caught a cold.
The GP immediately sent them to emergency.
Two days later over 3 litres of fluid had been drained from his lung, and tests inexplicably showed he had Stage 4 lung cancer metastasised to the brain, and lymph nodes. The fluid was produced by a large, inoperable tumour in his chest.
The man who was seen by all who knew him as the picture of perfect health, and an example of how to be healthy and strong into your 70s, was incomprehensibly dead just 23 days later.
First, the doctors planned to treat his cancer with chemotherapy and sent him home for the weekend to build strength. That was the last time he saw his home …
By Monday, his lung filled with fluid again and he was readmitted to emergency at Manly, where they kept draining him via a surgically inserted tube.
A few days later he was transferred to Royal North Shore Hospital for a procedure designed to stop the fluid building up. It was hoped that stopping the fluid would give him enough strength to endure chemotherapy for the tumour on the lung, and radiotherapy for the tumour in the brain.
The procedure failed, and he continued to deteriorate rapidly.
By Wednesday, a mere two weeks after he was first admitted to hospital, a young doctor mentioned the word we all feared, but knew was coming … the ‘p’ word – palliative care.
By Friday, he was begging us to let him go. Begging us to end the pain. Begging us to end the suffering.
With tears secretly welling up in our eyes, we kept reassuring him that we were doing everything we could to keep him comfortable, and free of pain. We continued talking with the nurses and doctors, asking, begging them to do whatever they could to help him.
The following weekend was a continuing exercise in needless pain and suffering.
On Monday he kept begging us to let him go. Begging us to end the pain. Begging us to end the suffering.
At one point he begged me to bring him sleeping pills so he could kill himself. I said I couldn’t do that, but promised I would do everything I can to minimise his pain and suffering. I kept talking with the nurses and doctors, asking, begging them to do whatever they could to help him.
On Tuesday he continued begging us to let him go. Begging us to end the pain. Begging us to end the suffering.
On Tuesday afternoon the palliative care specialist doctor finally came to see him. He begged her to let him go. Begged her to end the pain. Begged her to end the suffering.
She said, “Sorry John, I can’t kill you.”
After that harrowing meeting he was finally put on a morphine drip, and arrangements were made to transfer him to a specialist palliative care facility as soon as he was well enough to be transferred, and there was a room available for him. Recognising he was nearing the end, the wonderful hospital staff also arranged a private room for him on the ward in the meantime, so we could be with him in relative privacy.
On Wednesday he continued begging us to let him go. Begging us to end the pain. Begging us to end the suffering. He begged the nurses. He begged the palliative care nurse. He begged the visiting social worker, and oncologists.
The morphine just wasn’t strong enough to alleviate his pain and suffering. Terrified of suffering endlessly, he worked himself into debilitating panic attacks, threatening to rip out the tube draining the fluid from his lung, forcing the nurses to calm him with injections.
Despite the most advanced palliative care available, including the best possible pain relief, he continued to suffer immeasurably, physically and mentally. And we sat there and watched him.
As he was being tortured body and mind.
When death finally came, on Thursday, 23 February at 1.45pm, it was too late.
Although he slipped away peacefully in the end, with my mother and I holding his hands telling him we love him and it was okay to let go, he already needlessly suffered beyond comprehension.
Witnessing his last breath broke my heart, but also brought an incredible sense of relief.
But, as I held my grieving mother, I felt like a disgrace.
I felt like a fraud.
I felt like I failed John, and I failed my own principles.
I felt I let him suffer needlessly – I let his cancer torture him to death in front of my eyes, slowly and methodically like a psychotic killer given free rein to torture his victim.
But that failure is not entirely mine.
The current laws and society share my failure, because they tied our hands behind our backs and forced him to suffer, and me and my mother to helplessly watch him die – slowly, in pain, suffering, and terror.
Ironically, there was not a single nurse or doctor at the hospital who clearly didn’t feel exactly the same way as they watched him suffer. They apologised to him, and us, practically continuously for not being able to do ‘more’ to ‘help’ him. ‘We are doing as much as we can within the law,’ became the harrowing catchcry of the medical staff who themselves were clearly deeply troubled by what was unfolding before them.
In the end, there was no dignity in his delayed, grotesque death. The laws and society robbed him of any veneer of dignity.
Deep down I know he understood, and that he forgave us for being cowards and not doing what he asked of us … of me. Because he was a good, and loving man.
A man who deserved a better death.
Goodnight sweet prince …
1943 – 2017