Every life matters until the last breath

Mike Baird (left) as a child with dad Bruce, mum Judith, siblings Julia Baird and Steve BairdHammondCare CEO Mike Baird offered his view on why voluntary assisted dying laws are not the best response to the pain and suffering of an individual's last days in the Sydney Morning Herald. Read his full statement below.

When faced with the terminal suffering of someone you love, almost nothing else matters. I understand the pain. The renewed debate about voluntary assisted dying in NSW is personal for me – my mother died earlier this year following a battle with a terrible disease over a number of years.

There were days when I cried just wishing she would walk, talk or laugh again. It is also easy in these circumstances to understand how people wish it would just end, believing quality of life is over. I don’t agree.

In the last 12 months of mum’s life, my eldest daughter was going through a marriage breakdown. It was heart-wrenching for everyone. In the middle of this, my daughter went to visit my mum.

She greeted my daughter with tears and eyes that shared the pain. When my daughter came home she said, “I have never felt so loved”. It was as if my mum’s eyes had given her the hug she needed, the tears the comfort.

Life to life. Soul to soul.

It was a reminder of the beauty and power of life. Surprising, connecting and caring when no one thought this was possible. This is not meant to say I wasn’t in anguish at times seeing mum as she was.

In this debate we find ourselves on the edge of what it means to be human and looking for an answer. Voluntary assisted dying is introduced to us; it looks neat and easy compared to the messiness and struggle of the natural journey of what we fear might be a difficult death.

But there is nothing neat and easy about agreeing to end a life, however well-motivated the choice seems. Even writing these words reminds me why we would never consider these options normally.

There is another way.

The independent Christian charity I lead runs three palliative care units, supporting hundreds of inpatients every year, with thousands more supported by our team in the community or in aged care. Our multidisciplinary palliative care teams find that very often people conclude they need to end life because they don’t understand that palliative care will vastly reduce their symptoms without prolonging their life.

They have not heard that palliative care does not promote futile treatments, pointlessly keeping someone from dying who is ready to die. Instead, with exceptional, holistic skill, palliative care eases the way from life to death without influencing the timing, but uplifting the experience.

They have not heard that in the face of a prognosis that seems devoid of hope, palliative care teams are hugely successful at restoring and maintaining hope in a way that is often completely unexpected, and would otherwise have been abandoned.

Like the patient who, when confronted with a life-limiting illness, lost all hope and wanted to hasten the end of his life. But as the care team assembled around him, he discovered, even in those difficult days, a renewed beauty in family relationships.

He went from being immobile, wanting someone to help him die, to family picnics on the harbour foreshore, bathed in love that he had not thought possible. Because our experienced team knows that when you are dying, often the worst suffering is not physical. In fact, a third of our patients who come to palliative care wards, preparing to die, return home for more quality time with family.

I think if we understood what can be achieved by modern palliative care, delivered where and when it is needed, and if we stood back as a society and became less afraid of dying, and the challenges it brings, we might realise that these moments can be a gift. As I discovered in the dying days of my mother.

Despite good intentions I just don’t think laws can replace human love, compassion and ingenuity. When we lose sight of the intrinsic and immeasurable worth of every moment, for every human life, the laws put in place never protect in the way we hope they might. The unintended consequences can bruise, numb and lessen the spirit of who we are as a people.

I respect that those who advocate for voluntary assisted dying – euthanasia – are well-intentioned. I certainly don’t presume to know better than those who decide a voluntary death is preferable.

But I do draw on my personal experience, and the wisdom and insight of our many palliative care specialists, nurses, chaplains and social workers who tell me there is another way. One that we should be championing, not sidestepping.

With deep respect for all sides of this debate, I call on NSW not to follow, but to lead towards a society where every last moment of life is cherished and remembered, supported by universally available palliative care. Because every life matters until the last breath.

Mike Baird is the chief executive officer of HammondCare and a former premier of NSW.