A friend died recently; a man of 75 who had come to terms with a cancer diagnosis and decided to not put himself through the debilitating and nauseating side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. He decided, instead, to enjoy what he could of what life there was left for him. 

For quite some time that proved to be possible, despite his deep concern that his FNPF pension would soon be drastically cut – a concern that no doubt caused him great stress and hastened his demise.

 Unfortunately, the cancer wrecking his body caused him great pain. His last days were not at all easy, nor were they eased as they might have been: and that, to this writer’s mind, is an indictment of many in the world’s medical profession today.

 Aged 18, and about mid-way through a nursing course, I stood beside my ward Sister while she took instructions from a dying patient’s doctor. He said that he would neither increase the dose, nor the frequency, of the morphia being administered to ease the patient’s pain. We tidied the patient’s bedclothes, turned her pillow and made her as comfortable as we could, but it was clear that she was in distress.

 Then Sister asked me to accompany her to the locked drug cabinet and counter-sign the drug book. She took from the cabinet a dose of morphine, telling me it was for the patient we had just left. Timidly, I questioned whether that complied with the doctor’s wishes.

She turned from the cabinet to face me and asked, “Why are we here, nurse?”

“To make people better”, I replied. And she explained that, no – we were not there to do that – we were there to ease suffering.” 

I have never forgotten that Damascene moment. I see her in my mind’s eye – her royal blue frock with white frilled cuffs and collar; the stiffly starched and pleated cotton cap – the tiny office with a small vase of flowers on the desk – the glazed door and the open window – and that drugs cabinet: fifty years ago.

Some years back, another dying friend had had several fits, been taken to hospital, treated, then returned to his home after each. Then he had yet another fit and his wife as before, shouted for the ambulance to be called. But he grabbed her arm tightly and, although not able to speak or see, shook his head violently from side to side, indicating ‘no – no more – I’ve had enough’. When his time came, he too was denied a dignified and pain-free death.

We know when we have had enough (just as people in a coma know exactly what is being said and done around them). It is nature’s way of helping us to let go – to go in peace. Those of you who watched the BBC documentary series The Human Body will remember Herbie, the man dying of a stomach tumour, in the last episode of the series; a man who had accepted his dying and died peacefully in the care of his loving wife, and a doctor who did not think that the end of a human life should be one of suffering.

We do not ask to be born – the bottom line is the fact that most of us are manifestations of the biological clock. From the moment of birth when we struggle for that first gasp for air our lives are a struggle – for many much more so than for the few. Our bodies frequently let us down. We are forced to deal with illness, disease and decay. In one sense we begin to die at that moment of birth. It seems utterly tragic that so many of us will die in extreme agony simply because a doctor decides that his beliefs or Hippocratic oath, or both, take precedence over a patient’s suffering. This is immoral – cruel – selfish – unsympathetic, and unfeeling.

No – we do not ask to be born, but we embrace life and by far the greatest majority of human beings are simply good, if fallible people who make the best they can of their lot. But all of us, at some time in our lives, will be forced to let go of our ‘it-won’t-happen-to-me’ mind-set by an emotion-jolting realisation – I am going to die! Then life will never be the same; and our outlook is changed forever by an accident, a loss, or a disease.

How is it that there is another point in our lives when the majority of us will become invisible? This is a rare event for (for example) Chinese people because they treasure their elders. Their elderly are respected, revered for their wisdom, and cherished. How sad it is that in our lovelyland of Fiji this is all too often not the case.

Do you ever wonder how so many of the beggars on our streets get there each morning? Some of them are so fat, or infirm, or both, they are unable to stand.  Some are simply simple. One man well known to Suva shoppers, and always neatly dressed, has half a leg missing. So how do they get there? They are taken there by relatives! It is not the beggars we need to tackle, it is their heartless families who should be brought to task.

Once we become invisible to younger people we naturally become irrelevant, similes for which include inconsequential, insignificant, immaterial. To coin a word, we become unpersonated. From that point in our lives the majority of societies in the world today consider us a burden. Japan is soon to become the country with the largest elderly population in the world – but then, the Japanese, too, tend to revere and care for their elderly.

And so, following a lifetime of raising families and caring for others; working hard and taking what pleasures we can whenever we can: of being kind and considerate to others, as we near the end of our lives, instead of our lives easing they become more difficult. This is never clearer than when we are on our death-bed.

Those of us who do not drop dead of an almighty heart-attack or die peacefully in our sleep; but lie dying in great pain, are at the mercy of self-righteous people who, for some inexplicable reason, would put down a terminally ill cat, but refuse to administer that extra dose of morphine sulphate, which might possibly kill us, because they believe that by keeping us alive, albeit in agony, they are especially meretricious human beings.

Sue Cauty