Call to let loved ones die gently
IT HAS been 35 years since Merrilyn Strohfeldt’s mother died from pancreatic cancer, but she remembers the cruelty of her death as if it were yesterday.
The Toowoomba-based CEO of a health organisation has lived through the trauma of watching close family die after her brother John died from a brain stem tumour in January this year, and her brother-in-law died from lymphoma last year.
Ms Strohfeldt, now 59, is the same age that her mother Joyce Willcox was when she died and said end of life choices had not changed in the three decades since she died.
“We begged the doctor could he just give her some more morphine, and he was crying, this young doctor, saying, ‘I would if I could but I can’t’,” Ms Strohfeldt said.
“Things haven’t improved. Most of the hospital staff were very kind, but my brother and brother-in-law had to suffer unnecessarily for the two or so weeks leading up to their death.”
Guided by her personal experiences and her life’s work in health care, Ms Strohfeldt hopes voluntary assisted dying will soon be legalised in Queensland to provide the terminally ill an alternative choice to palliative care.
“It’s not a question of palliative care or assisted dying,” she said.
“It’s about they’re all part of a continuum, and they should be tools that are available for people to access, depending on their circumstances.”
Ms Willcox was a muchloved librarian in Bowen, and Ms Strohfeldt said her mother was “a very gentle person, a very intelligent lady”.
However after what should have been routine surgery for gallstones, doctors discovered advanced pancreatic cancer and as the disease progressed Ms Willcox’s leg turned black from gangrene as the tumour restricted blood flow to the limb.
“The smell as unbearable, the pain was unbearable, the fact that we could do nothing was unbearable,” Ms Strohfeldt said.
“The only thing available to my mum was a leg amputation but no surgeon would do it because, ironically, they said she would probably die in the operating theatre.
“Every day she would lift the sheets and look at her leg and shudder.”
The family asked desperately for pain relief, to “put her out of this horrendous pain and indignity”.
“Mum said, ‘We don’t let animals suffer like this’ and she begged my eldest brother to shoot her,” Ms Strohfeldt said.
“It devastated the family. We felt like failures, that we couldn’t do anything to help her.”
Despite almost four decades having passed since her mum’s death, Ms Strohfeldt said that when her brother and brother-in-law died she relived the same sense of helplessness.
“It’s the same feeling, knowing that they have to suffer – even though you know that they have to die, that there is no hope for them – but they just have to see it through,” she said.
“Voluntary assisted dying is about people who are absolutely on their last legs – they’re going to die in the next few weeks, they’re in pain, they’re suffering the indignity of rotting or soiling themselves or whatever.
“Just let them go gently.”