De­bate over as­sisted dy­ing heats up

Sup­port­ing NSW bill to take own life

Tweed Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - Nikki Todd nikki.todd@tweed­dai­lynews.com.au

I won’t be dy­ing in hos­pi­tal...

— Dr Ian Mcphee

DR IAN Mcphee is a fighter.

As head of the Tweed Hos­pi­tal Med­i­cal Staff Coun­cil he fought fiercely to force the NSW Gov­ern­ment to recog­nise the need for a ma­jor up­grade of the over­crowded, ag­ing hos­pi­tal.

That fight, sev­eral years in the mak­ing, cul­mi­nated in June this year with a $530 mil­lion com­mit­ment to build a new, green­field hos­pi­tal in the Tweed, ten­ders for which have just been is­sued.

A se­nior emer­gency anaes­thetist at the hos­pi­tal for 20 years, Dr Mcphee, 62, was in­vited to at­tend that an­nounce­ment de­spite hav­ing re­tired – recog­ni­tion of the sig­nif­i­cant role he played in fight­ing for the up­grade.

Now his fight is more per­sonal: get­ting those same pow­ers in Mac­quarie St to sup­port the pro­posed Vol­un­tary As­sisted Dy­ing Bill 2017, due to come be­fore the Up­per House within weeks.

For his re­tire­ment in early 2016 was not of his own choos­ing. The Bil­am­bil spe­cial­ist is bat­tling Sezary syn­drome, an in­cred­i­bly rare skin-based can­cer that af­fects a hand­ful of Aus­tralians each year.

Cur­rently in ten­ta­tive re­mis­sion, Dr Mcphee en­dured in­cred­i­ble suf­fer­ing as the can­cer tore through his body, leav­ing him bedrid­den, in­con­ti­nent and forced to un­dergo a bone mar­row trans­plant be­fore he en­dured mul­ti­ple or­gan fail­ure, with his heart fi­nally giv­ing up, stop­ping for 16 min­utes last year.

By sheer luck he was in the Royal Melbourne Hos­pi­tal when he went into car­diac ar­rest, with spe­cial­ists man­ag­ing to re­vive him.

“I was in­cred­i­bly lucky,” he said. “I woke up the next day and have slowly re­cov­ered.

“I have al­ways felt vol­un­tary as­sisted dy­ing is the way to go. I’ve seen the re­al­ity of end of life strongly my­self as I lay there with mul­ti­ple or­gan fail­ure, only will­ing my­self on be­cause I felt the trans­plant might suc­ceed, but it failed.

“It was dev­as­tat­ing for me and (my wife) Kath.”

Dr Mcphee has a unique in­sight into the ques­tion of vol­un­tary as­sisted dy­ing.

An anaes­thetist with more than 30 years ex­pe­ri­ence, he ran the acute pain ser­vice at Tweed Hos­pi­tal for al­most two decades.

“I un­der­stand the drugs that are avail­able to pal­lia­tive care physi­cians,” he said.

“It is not ei­ther-or, it is not about hav­ing vol­un­tary as­sisted dy­ing or pal­lia­tive care. They are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, they are com­pletely com­ple­men­tary.”

Dr Mcphee said re­search from overseas showed only a small per­cent­age of pa­tients given the op­tion to take life-end­ing drugs ac­tu­ally took them, with the drugs act­ing more as a com­fort should they be needed.

That com­fort is one he is keen on him­self, with plans to visit Dr Rod­ney Syme, vice-pres­i­dent of Dy­ing with Dig­nity Vic­to­ria, in com­ing weeks to seek the drug Nem­bu­tal.

“That is my great com­fort,” he said. “I won’t be dy­ing in hos­pi­tal.”

The fa­ther of four and grand­fa­ther of six said it was up to the com­mu­nity to make the call on the vexed is­sue of as­sisted dy­ing.

“It’s not up to the doc­tors to de­cide on vol­un­tary as­sisted dy­ing,” he said.

“As a com­mu­nity we have to make a call on this. It’s a dif­fi­cult call and full of all sorts of emo­tions and con­cerns, but the bill that has been drafted is quite ro­bust, I feel very con­fi­dent in it.”

De­scrib­ing the Up­per House bill as “prob­a­bly the most con­ser­va­tive of any ju­ris­dic­tion”, Dr Mcphee said there were cur­rently about 200 mil­lion peo­ple across the world al­ready sub­ject to vol­un­tary as­sisted dy­ing laws, in­clud­ing in Canada, the Eu­ro­pean Union and sev­eral states in the US.

“This is a re­ally im­por­tant step,” Dr Mcphee said.

“It is a gen­uine op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple suf­fer­ing a ter­mi­nal ill­ness, who are of sound mind, to be able to say enough is enough. It’s that sim­ple. It’s not com­plex. It’s not doc­tors killing peo­ple.”

For him, the im­por­tance of the leg­is­la­tion is two-fold. Should it pass, it will al­low him to die in the com­fort of his own com­mu­nity, sur­rounded by loved ones – and it would mean zero risk of his wife and fam­ily be­ing ques­tioned by po­lice over his death.

“I’m in a good place, I count my­self as be­ing in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate,” he said. “I had a fan­tas­tic life, a great ca­reer... I’ve got a lovely fam­ily, my par­ents are still alive. But I don’t plan more than a month in ad­vance any more. It’s dif­fi­cult but it’s okay.”

PHOTO: ALINA RYLKO

GOOD NEWS: Dr Ian Mcphee (far right), then chair of the Tweed Hos­pi­tal Med­i­cal Staff Coun­cil, at the first an­nounce­ment in 2015 by for­mer Health Min­is­ter Jil­lian Skinner of $48 mil­lion for Stage 1 the hos­pi­tal up­grade. The NSW Gov­ern­ment in June this year an­nounced $530mil­lion for a new green­field hos­pi­tal.

PHOTO: NIKKI TODD

TOUGH DE­BATE: Dr Ian Mcphee, in Tweed this week, avidly sup­ports the Vol­un­tary As­sisted Dy­ing Bill 2017, soon to come be­fore the NSW Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil.

PHOTO: JOHN GASS

DE­TER­MINED: Ian Mcphee at home in Bil­am­bil Heights in 2015.

PHOTO: NOLAN VERHEIJ-FULL

DED­I­CATED: Dr Ian Mcphee (right) with cur­rent co-chair of the Tweed Med­i­cal Staff Coun­cil Robert Davies in their cam­paign for the Tweed Hos­pi­tal in 2015.

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