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Opinion: Brittany Maynard deserves our compassion – and her bravery deserves our attention

As a compassionate society, must have the courage to face up to the question of terminal illness and euthanasia.

Alan Rossiter

NONE OF US wants to die, but die we all will. When we do die we all want it to be comfortable and dignified and peaceful, surrounded by those we love.

When faced with imminent death and a death that will be cruel, and where even the best of palliative care will not relieve that final suffering, is it right that we can say to a person that their only option is to spend their last days of their life in intolerable agony? Should they not have the right to let themselves go, in peace, in comfort, just those few days or weeks before the very cruel end they otherwise face?

She wanted to live – and she fought to live – but lost

Brittany Maynard faced imminent death and a horrible death. Faced with that she decided she wanted to die at a time before when nature would have taken her and she was afforded that right by the laws of the State she lived in. Brittany was just 29. She did not want to die, she wanted to live and she fought to live, but lost; she was going to die and she wanted to die in dignity and in comfort. She made the decision to die before the final suffering nature would have inflicted upon her; her life ended three days ago. She, and her family, deserves our compassion and her bravery deserves our attention.

Whether a terminally ill person, facing a gruelling and cruel death, should be afforded that right to die before nature would otherwise take them is an almost incomprehensible ethical and moral dilemma but is one that we as a mature and compassionate society must have the courage to face up to – the same courage that Brittany demonstrated by sharing her story.

The act of euthanasia is not the most difficult part of my job

I am a vet. Part of my job is to put animals to sleep. Many people say to me that it must be the most difficult part of my job.

My honest answer back to them that whilst I would of course prefer never ‘have’ to put any animal to sleep what would be infinitely worse would be if I was not ‘able’ to put them to sleep, if I was prevented by law from doing so. For that reason I do not see the act of euthanasia as the most difficult part of my job; the most difficult part of my job is not putting the animal to sleep, it is having to break the news that there is nothing else I can do for a pet to save their life, that nature has beaten us, that death is inevitable.

How sad it is that a pet reaches the end of its life, of course. But what a responsibility it is that once we know this that we ensure the last portion of their life is as good and as comfortable and pain-free as possible, and that their passing on is as dignified and as peaceful as possible.

So my job is to keep this poor pet as well and as comfortable as possible for as long as possible and then – when it is clear there is nothing else that can be done, that their quality of life has deteriorated to what is humanely acceptable – that we let them go with dignity and in comfort by in essence administering an anaesthetic overdose. It’s quick, painless, dignified. They fall into a deep sleep, they pass on with their last memory being a loving rub and kind gentle words. The final, needless suffering they faced has been avoided.

The ultimate kindness

How much sadder, and inhumane, and awful, and heartbreaking would it be if the only thing I could do for these poor animals who have only a very short period of ‘life’ – of painful horrible end-of-life, not able to move without pain, unable to eat or drink, in constant discomfort or pain – was to send them home to die in that awful pain, discomfort, distress and to force their poor owners to watch them go through this.

I see my ability to put animals who are at the end of their lives to sleep as a great privilege, the ultimate kindness that allows me to ensure that they do not have to go through those final awful days or weeks, suffering for no reason. That they can leave this life with dignity. That they can pass on from their discomfort quickly, painlessly, peacefully and in the comfort and reassurance of a loving embrace from their owners in their final minutes. However, I also see it as a great responsibility that must only be reserved for those pets who really are in their final days. It must never be abused and must only be used when no other options remain.

I watched my poor mother die an awful death from cancer

As a vet treating animals, what right have I to become involved in this debate that is to do with human life? None, none at all.

But as a man I have every right to do so, indeed a responsibility.

No different from many of us will or have faced I watched my poor mother die an awful death from cancer. I sat beside her and watched her die, I watched her body ravaged by disease, I watched her suffer. She had the very, very best of end-of-life care in a wonderful hospice and with great relief I saw her afforded the comfort of morphine in her final days, with her passing hastened by the very same drug that relieved her intolerable terminal agony.

But despite this I heard her say to me that she wished she could have made the decision to die before she went through the final torture.

That if she were a dog, if I were her vet, that this could have been afforded to her. She said this to me.

She wished she was a dog, for dogs would not be made to suffer like she was. These were her words.

I hear it from many of my clients whose pet I have put to sleep that they wish that they could be afforded the same dignity and freedom from terminal suffering that their pet was.

Should humans in terminal suffering not be afforded the same right?

I am not, of course in any way equating the life of an animal with that of a human. As a man who has seen what I have seen I am, though, asking should humans in terminal suffering not be afforded the same right as animals have – to pass on in comfort and dignity before the very, very awful ending they, we, face?

But yet we face the dilemmas that having that right would unearth. When is the right time? Could the person have had more time in this life? Could it be abused to cause the premature death of those who may have wished to live longer? Greatest of all perhaps  – could the right to take one’s own life impose some sort of moral hazard, could it make one feel as though one should do it even if one may not want to?

I don’t have the answers to those question but the compassion in me for those who are in terminal suffering is that there has to be a way for those of sound mind, but a body which is causing them terrible and intractable suffering, to be allowed to pass on before those final awful horrible painful days and weeks. It is just wrong to make them suffer.

And yet… before we even consider this we have to ensure that we have in place the very, very best end-of-life and palliative care in the world. If we put in place the right to die at a time of one’s own choosing then we have to put in place all the tools to make end-of-life so comfortable, so humane that it reduces to as near zero as can be possible the need to take one’s life to prevent that final suffering.

I want to have that reassurance for me when I reach the end of my life. I don’t want to have to make the decision to end my life so as to end my intolerable agony, but I do not want to suffer intolerably at the end of my life, either. We all deserve this.

Alan Rossiter is Senior Veterinary Surgeon in Blacklion Pet Hospital, Greystones Co Wicklow (www.vets.ie), and the 2012 President of Veterinary Ireland.

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Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who planned her own death, has died

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Alan Rossiter

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