Victoria will become the first state in Australia to legalise voluntary assisted dying in July 2019.
Dr Rodney Syme, retired Urologist and Vice President of ‘Dying with Dignity Victoria’ has been a pivotal figure head in the historical legislation. Advocating for euthanasia for 30 years in Victoria, he says he is proud of the new legislation but recognises flaws in the act, which will be reviewed in 5 years.
Dr Syme says that few people who are given access to the law will use it, rather it will encourage doctors and patients to have an open dialogue and give dying people autonomy over the end of their life. He says good communication and support will alleviate the patient’s fear and the psychological and existential suffering about death.
Dr Syme has counselled over 2,000 patients and has openly admitted to assisting patients with terminal illness end their own lives.
In the U.S state of Oregon where voluntary assisted dying has been legal since 1997 around 30% of patients who are given life ending drugs don’t use them.
Appearing on Andrew Denton’s podcast “Better Off Dead”, Denton referred to Dr Syme as ‘Australia’s oldest outlaw’.
Having been interviewed several times by the police, Dr Syme says he became aware the law around euthanasia was vague and he was able to slowly and carefully push boundaries.
“At first I was scared stiff, it was a very spontaneous and naive action. In 1996 I was involved with a patient and helped them with medication.”
“Because I spoke out about things more and more people came and sought my advice, who I couldn’t in all conscience (turn away), but I was very worried and concerned for a long time until I gradually realised that the prosecutorial authorities were not interested in prosecuting unless somebody made a complaint.” Dr Syme said.
The Victorian Voluntary Assisted Dying Act states that a person must be suffering from unbearable pain, terminally ill with a life expectancy of 6 months or less, of sound mind, assessed by two senior doctors of the medical fellows under stringent criteria and making persistent decisions to end their life.
Dr Syme says the parameters to qualify for voluntary assisted dying should not be around terminal illness rather the suffering the patient endures should be taken into account and that to put a time limit on the law is “wrong”.
Politicians take an “uneducated view on chronic pain”, Dr Syme said.
Australian scientist David Goodall 104, travelled to Switzerland in May this year to end his own life legally in a euthanasia clinic in the town of Basel.
Goodall recently fell at home, unable to pull himself up from the floor he lay there for two days. The hospital discharged him with scratches and dehydration and found that there was nothing wrong with him.
While Goodall wasn’t diagnosed with a terminal illness Dr Syme says that someone at 104 years of age is effectively terminal due to huge degeneration of the body systems yet the medical profession doesn’t recognise the condition of old age as terminal.
“It’s absolutely appalling that somebody of his age and general infirmity should be forced by Australian society to have to make such a journey and I fully support his decision as his life is completed and by that I mean is that there is no pleasure in his life which is obvious from his statements, there’s no purpose, there is nothing more he can achieve.”
“He was very fortunate that he retained a good cognitive pass, his brain was still functioning very well but his body was physically giving up on him.” Dr Syme said.
The Catholic hospitals have made their position clear stating their institutions will refuse to assist terminal patients die including St Vincent’s hospital, which owns four hospitals in Victoria including the government funded St Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne.
While Catholic institutions are refusing to cooperate with the Voluntary Assisted Dying laws they have yet to state their action plan of what they will do if they have a terminally ill patient in their care who requests assistance to die, how they will respond and whether they will provide an alternative for the patient.
“In my view they should be putting up large signs out the front of their hospital and nurses stations saying we will not help anybody die and doctors should declare what their position is because a patient doesn’t want to be in a position of having dreadful suffering, ask their doctor and then at the last minute find out that he isn’t going to help them.” Dr Syme.
Dying with Dignity Victoria will campaign for a register for doctors for and against voluntary assisted dying so that patients wanting to have an open dialogue will have information to find a supportive doctor. They will also suggest a video consult for patients particularly those living in rural and remote areas.