Anaesthetist calls for right to put himself out of pain
DR IAN McPhee is a fighter.
As head of the Tweed Hospital Medical Staff Council he fought fiercely to force the NSW Government to recognise the need for a major upgrade of the overcrowded, aging hospital.
That fight, several years in the making, culminated in June this year with a $530 million commitment to build a new, greenfield hospital in the Tweed, tenders for which have just been issued.
A senior emergency anaesthetist at the hospital for 20 years, Dr McPhee, 62, was invited to attend that announcement despite having retired - recognition of the significant role he played in fighting for the upgrade.
Now his fight is more personal: getting those same powers in Macquarie St to support the proposed Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017, due to come before the Upper House within weeks.
For his retirement in early 2016 was not of his own choosing. The Bilambil specialist is battling Sezary syndrome, an incredibly rare skin-based cancer that affects a handful of Australians each year.
Currently in tentative remission, Dr McPhee endured incredible suffering as the cancer tore through his body, leaving him bedridden, incontinent and forced to undergo a bone marrow transplant before he endured multiple organ failure, with his heart finally giving up, stopping for 16 minutes last year.
By sheer luck he was in the Royal Melbourne Hospital when he went into cardiac arrest, with specialists managing to revive him.
"I was incredibly lucky," he said. "I woke up the next day and have slowly recovered.
"I have always felt voluntary assisted dying is the way to go. I've seen the reality of end of life strongly myself as I lay there with multiple organ failure, only willing myself on because I felt the transplant might succeed, but it failed.
"It was devastating for me and (my wife) Kath."
Dr McPhee has a unique insight into the question of voluntary assisted dying.
An anaesthetist with more than 30 years experience, he ran the acute pain service at Tweed Hospital for almost two decades.
"I understand the drugs that are available to palliative care physicians," he said.
"It is not either-or, it is not about having voluntary assisted dying or palliative care. They are not mutually exclusive, they are completely complementary."
Dr McPhee said research from overseas showed only a small percentage of patients given the option to take life-ending drugs actually took them, with the drugs acting more as a comfort should they be needed.
That comfort is one he is keen on himself, with plans to visit Dr Rodney Syme, vice-president of Dying with Dignity Victoria, in coming weeks to seek the drug Nembutal.
"That is my great comfort," he said. "I won't be dying in hospital."
The father of four and grandfather of six said it was up to the community to make the call on the vexed issue of assisted dying.
"It's not up to the doctors to decide on voluntary assisted dying," he said.
"As a community we have to make a call on this. It's a difficult call and full of all sorts of emotions and concerns, but the bill that has been drafted is quite robust, I feel very confident in it."
Describing the Upper House bill as "probably the most conservative of any jurisdiction", Dr McPhee said there were currently about 200 million people across the world already subject to voluntary assisted dying laws, including in Canada, the European Union and several states in the US.
"This is a really important step," Dr McPhee said.
"It is a genuine opportunity for people suffering a terminal illness, who are of sound mind, to be able to say enough is enough. It's that simple. It's not complex. It's not doctors killing people."
For him, the importance of the legislation is two-fold. Should it pass, it will allow him to die in the comfort of his own community, surrounded by loved ones - and it would mean zero risk of his wife and family being questioned by police over his death.
"I'm in a good place, I count myself as being incredibly fortunate," he said. "I had a fantastic life, a great career... I've got a lovely family, my parents are still alive. But I don't plan more than a month in advance any more. It's difficult but it's okay."