The Huffington Post 3 September 2015
As she lay in the hospice, ghostly pale and apparently slipping away before my eyes, my mother was adamant. ‘I just want to die,’ had become her repeated refrain. She was 84, suffering from advanced breast cancer and didn’t want chemotherapy. As far as she was concerned, the end could not come soon enough. ‘I’ve had a good life,’ she would say. ‘But I don’t want to be dependent. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.’
Had assisted suicide been legal, she made it quite clear that it would have been her chosen path. ‘I’d go for it,’ she told me, with a fixed, determined look in her eye. The situation certainly seemed hopeless, particularly after a scan revealed that the cancer had spread to huge areas of her pelvis and lower back.
With every movement accompanied by excruciating pain, she agreed, reluctantly, to have radiotherapy on her disintegrating pelvis. But it seemed to make little difference; only the pain-killing drugs helped. She was getting weaker by the day and couldn’t wait to be released by death. Seeing a parent suffer is a terrible experience for anyone, but for me, there was an added and cruel irony: I’m a professor of palliative care.
I have dedicated my career as a physician to improving the care of the terminally ill – and yet here was my dreadfully sick mother, stopping just short of asking me to help her die.
By the bitterest of coincidences, as she lay in her hospice bed, I was also vigorously opposing a Bill in the House of Lords that would have made assisted suicide legal. The situation was tearing me in two. Mum had fought for her family all her life. So how could I ignore her wishes? I believed passionately in the cause I was fighting in Parliament – that every life is of value and should never be ended by legalised ‘death by appointment’.
But seeing my lovely mother dying in a hospice bed, despite the gentle, caring nursing and the patient doctoring, was almost too much to bear. Sixteen years earlier, I had left general practice and become a full-time hospice doctor because I wanted to improve the care of the dying. I longed to change health care so that staff listened to patients and valued each one, even when those patients were desperately ill, disabled or beyond a cure.
As I discovered, a terminally-ill person can live a lot of life in a short space of time – and I wanted to bring hope to their moments of despair. And yet I felt powerless to help my own mum. My brother, John – who had been desperately sick as a baby and who my mother had breastfed moments before taking him down for an operation that no one was sure he would survive – played peacemaker, desperately trying to reconcile his mother’s anger with his sister’s distress.
But it was the hospice chaplain who unlocked the door. Wise enough to realise there was no point talking about God to this agnostic lady and experienced enough to know we all have a story, he quietly and patiently asked Mum to tell him hers.
And so he sat, this quiet, unassuming man, and listened, soaking up the years, as she told him her views and philosophy on life. And it was in this telling that it dawned on Mum that her decrepit body still held an active mind. Suddenly, she realised that if she wasn’t going to be allowed to kill herself, she had better make the most of what time remained.
So day by day, she took more pain relief, which first enabled her to get out of bed and then to take a few tentative steps with a Zimmer frame. Every day, she tried to take a few steps more. ‘I’m training for the London marathon,’ she laughed, after five, seven and then ten yards on the Zimmer. And then, almost miraculously, the radiotherapy began to work, her pain disappeared and she was able to leave the hospice and go home.
My mother would go on to live for another four years and it’s no exaggeration to say that those four years were almost more precious than the 84 that had preceded them.