Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The recent reports on the British GP, Dr Martin, who has admitted to acting out of “Christian compassion” to limit the final suffering of elderly and terminally ill patients – including his own 30-year-old son – have struck me deeply.

I suspect the majority of us will go through life and death without having to make the terrible decision of whether to intervene or not. I have certainly faced it but in the end was saved from that day of awful reckoning by a fatal blood clot to the lung.

When my partner was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer we believed she had at least 18 months to live. However the battle went badly and after just six months the doctor told me the end would come soon and the deterioration would be rapid.

We still maintained the stance that we were fighting cancer but the cells were now spreading from the lung around the body and would speedily take hold in the brain.

My partner had a keen mind. She enjoyed doing cryptic crosswords, reading, enjoying classical music and so on. Yet I knew when her brain failed the real crisis would set in and we would reach the stage when life for her had finished although the cancer would not yet be ready to release her from this world. It would insist on shaking the life out of her like a hunting dog with a hare.

She was already sucking on the morphine ‘chupa chups’ lollipops and the oxygen machine were by the bedside. As the days wore on the morphine requirement would grow and the breathing aid would no longer just be for an hour or so at a time.

I therefore mentally prepared myself for the end or the premature end that she might demand. I rationalised that I would not be prepared to assist her in ending her life and pain but I would be prepared to turn a blind eye, to make the morphine dose available, to not come rushing in if the oxygen machine was turned off.

Of course I now accept that the decision would never be that easy. If you had your partner’s hand in yours, looked into their eyes as they plead release, do you then simply lecture them on the sanctity of life, walk away leaving the pills at the bedside or assist them in their final hour of need? I don’t know or rather I suspect I do but don’t want to admit it.

The ending of a person’s life in these circumstances has huge moral, medical and legal implications. Whilst it has to be right, out of “Christian charity” to help end suffering we must also be aware of those who would take such actions for their own benefit. Doctors regularly make life and death decisions on behalf of their patients but surely we must beware the medic who believes his or her role is to terminate suffering wherever he or she finds it.

I also ask whether a person, a panel of wise minds or the government of the day can rule on this issue if those involved have not had to make the gut wrenching decision to end or not end a life of a loved one themselves.

I suspect not.


Anonymous said...

Shouldn´t every Doctor who has prescribed and increased the morphine dose come under suspicion? Until a Doctor is fingered, usually by a relative who
out of grief has to blame aniother party for the loss, this is normal
procedure but we don´t talk about it do we, about putting people to sleep gently and slowly?

Although this Christian compassion explanation seems to imply that he may have jumped the gun somewhat. Like you, I was spared - a heart attack in the middle of the night- I could have possibly pulled the
emergency cord- but what for- the violent dragging of someone back into this world for a few more days/weeks of suffering. But- I still think about it- should I have or not? We can´t play God that easily but neither can we
let our loved ones go on in agony.

Tony Murphy said...

My father died 38 years ago aged 45, when I was 18. It came as a shock as he had gone in to hospital for an operation for a stomach ulcer.When they opened him up they discovered he had stomach cancer. He died within a month of his diagnosis.
I was devastated.However a few months after his death I discovered that a nurse in the hospital had found him hiding his morphine tablets. He had confessed he was trying to accumulate enough to take as a single dose and die.I was stunned. My father and I had always been close.I saw him as strong,brave and unafraid of life’s pitfalls.He had run away from home at the age of 15 and armed with his older brothers’ birth certificate he joined the RAF in 1942 and spent the remainder of the war in India.
There are many who would say that suicide is a cowards way out but the strength of will it took for him to endure what must have been incredible pain,for me showed great bravery.The last time I saw him conscious he cried when I arrived to see him.
It was the first time in my life I had seen him cry. I knew he was dying.
I’m not sure how I would have reacted had he asked me to help him.
The pain of losing a loved one is heartbreaking,but the knowledge that they suffered
Is even more painful. I hope that if faced with the prospect of that decision sometime in the future, I would have the strength to do the right thing.