The 55-year-old spoke out about his decision to refuse life-prolonging kidney dialysis in last week’s Sunday Age. He passed away peacefully on Friday at the Keilor East nursing home where he lived for 12 years.
Mr Virgona was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, but had lost almost all autonomy and was afraid of deteriorating to the point where he could no longer advocate for himself.
On Monday he did not have dialysis – the procedure that had kept him alive for the past three years – in the knowledge that it would hasten his death.
Mr Virgona’s condition started to decline almost immediately. “I had a really bad night,” he said on Tuesday. “I was up vomiting a lot. I’ve been told to expect some difficult times in the next day or so because the toxins are building up.”
Mr Virgona wanted to document the last days of his life because he believed voluntary euthanasia should be legal for people with degenerative conditions, extreme disabilities and terminal illness. Over the past two weeks he repeatedly expressed how important it was that he died on his terms.
His decision to refuse life-sustaining treatment was legal, unlike with assisted suicide or euthanasia. But Mr Virgona said he would have preferred to take a pill and end his life quickly rather than die from renal failure over a number of days.
He hoped his case would raise awareness for people in similar circumstance who did not have a voice and help the campaign to legalise voluntary euthanasia.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” he said days before his death. “I honestly believe that one day the right to die will eventuate.”
Mr Virgona’s cousin, Angelo Da Campo, said his family had struggled to watch a powerful but gentle man deteriorate over the years “to this sickening and cruel disease”. Mr Da Campo also said he personally found it difficult to comprehend what his cousin was doing, but that he admired and respected him for his courage.
“Anthony is someone I grew up with as a little boy and I would always follow him around and look up to him for his words of wisdom and as a role model,” he said. “He would always take me under his wing and take me to watch our beloved Bombers play week in, week out.
“He doesn’t know this but I idealised my cousin and always wanted to be just like him. I know that I am a much better person for it and I have my cousin Anthony to thank for that. He will always be my hero.”
Dozens of readers contacted The Age after Mr Virgona’s story was published, with most commending him on his courage and bravery. Many expressed concerns about laws that prohibit euthanasia and some told of their own experiences with family members who had asked for assistance ending their lives.
“Please send my regards to this very brave man. I am not afraid to die but am very afraid of being forced to live,” one reader said.
“This story has given me hope as I move into my advanced years,” said another.
Many people who posted comments on Facebook shared the sentiment that Mr Virgona should have been able to end his life peacefully without risking possible medical complications.
“This man and all like him should be allowed access to dignified end of life arrangements,” wrote Bill Mansell. “This method of toxifying yourself to death is barbaric.”
Stephanie Harford said she was saddened that “this is the only way out”. “The law has to change and give people like Anthony the power to make decisions about how to end their lives,” she said.
Beth Hill questioned why people such as Mr Virgona only had the option of an “undignified” end to their lives. “Society has to change and stop imprinting its moralistic values on people who are terminally suffering.”
By Beau Donelly, published in The Age, 14 Feb 2016.
Photograph by Pat Scala