Compassion and respect

Response to ‘Australian Story’

What ‘Australian Story’ demonstrated so clearly last night is the stark contrast between compassionate, courageous doctors like Rodney Syme who listen to and respect their patients, and the doctors like Karen Hitchcock who fail to demonstrate these values in their claims about voluntary assisted dying.

DwDNSW has provided on its Facebook page an excellent analysis of Dr Hitchcock’s comments in last night’s program:

Did you hear Dr Karen Hitchcock on “Australian Story” tonight? She claimed that “Physical pain towards the end of life is treatable. We have very very powerful drugs available to us. I have never, in the 13 years that I have been practising in big hospitals, ever had a patient die screaming and in pain. Never. I’ve never had a single patient beg me for death towards the end of their life”.

In maki
ng these statements Hitchcock ignores many things including:
* the Position Statement of Palliative Care Australia, which states that while pain and other symptoms can be helped, complete relief of suffering is not always possible, even with optimal palliative care.
* It is well-established that physical pain is not the only cause of suffering at end-of-life; suffering can also result from existential concerns, such as feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, futility, remorse, death anxiety, as well as social isolation and loss of dignity and control.
* the findings by “The Economist” in July last year that, over the past 15 years, terminal sedation—increasing drug doses to maintain deep unconsciousness until death—has become widely used in many countries to control dying patients’ fear and agitation. A sedated patient could not scream in pain but they may still experience an undignified and prolonged death where they do not get to say goodbye to their family who watch them slowly die in this state.

Hitchcock’s experience of no requests to speed up a person’s dying process should also been seen in the context of a 2007 survey by Neil et al. of 854 Victorian doctors, which found that 302 of those doctors had received requests from patients to hasten their death. Perhaps those who haven’t received requests were not listening or were not approachable – or their patients were terminally sedated?

Dr Hitchcock is just the latest of the public opponents of voluntary assisted dying showing exactly the same characteristic – a failure to meet the most basic principles, values and standards expected of doctors and Christians. She showed no compassion or empathy and no respect for the principle of patient autonomy or of the wishes of individuals.  As the DwDNSW analysis shows, she made false, misleading and self-absorbed claims that distort the facts.  In addition, she implied sinister motives of someone like Rodney Syme. According to Dr Hitchcock, she did not know what motivated Dr Syme to “kill people” and implied that his assistance to people was because he decided “when people’s life is not worth living or is worth living”.
Dr Rodney Syme actually lives his principles and is what we all want from our doctors.  Fortunately, there are many more like him who support assisted dying law reform and who will provide the assistance when it becomes law.  In the meantime, he should not have to go to gaol for providing the standard of compassionate, respectful end of life care people ask for.

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