“My example of shooting prisoners might be a bit way out but it’s a question of how society views life and death. I wouldn’t want to weaken our respect for life.”
His testimony kicked off the first day of hearings into the choices available to Canberrans at the end of their life.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced the inquiry after Victoria introduced an assisted dying scheme for terminally ill patients, and members of both the ACT and federal Labor and Greens began a push to repeal the Commonwealth bill that stops the territories making laws on euthanasia.
The committee heard of the limitations of the ACT’s palliative care system, but also stories of physicians going above the call of duty for their patients.
Calvary Public Hospital’s director of palliative care Dr Suharsha Kanathigoda remembered one patient who was dying of cancer, who when asked if he had any unfinished business said he would have liked to go para-gliding just once in his life.
The patient was estranged from his family, but with his permission Dr Kanathigoda called his son and arranged for them to go gliding.
“Palliative care is not just about managing a symptom or talking to somebody or being there with them. It’s about knowing what makes them tick,” Dr Kanathigoda said.
“Once you know what makes them tick, even if they were requesting to end their life because of those issues, you can still use it as an opportunity to find out what is the problem here and sort it out and make it happen. When that happens, the patient can die peacefully and comfortably.”
Calvary runs the ACT’s only palliative care hospice, Clare Holland House, and earlier told the committee the company would not provide any assisted dying at its facilities, even if the practice was legalised in Canberra.
The Council of the Ageing ACT executive director Jenny Mobbs said while Canberra’s existing palliative care service was of a high standard, there was a “significant” unmet need.
The council called on the government to establish a dedicated palliative care ward in the Canberra Hospital and allocate future funding to support more home-based palliative care.
Ms Mobbs also called on more education for health professionals about palliative care, saying she was concerned about reports of “dying, elderly patients receiving intensive, life-saving hospital treatments”.
Palliative Care ACT also pointed to the lack of palliative care beds, and need for health professionals to understand the practice.
Its chief executive Glenda Stevens said she knew of a dying woman who’d been to the doctor asking for medicine as she was in unbearable pain, only to be refused as he did not want her to become addicted.
“She had three months to live,” Ms Stevens said.
The woman also asked for palliative care but the doctor told her she was not ready, Ms Stevens said.
Ms Stevens also said a young terminally ill man had been refused a place at Clare Holland House last week, despite beds being available.
A spokesman for Calvary said he could not comment on individual cases without the consent of the family, but patients had to meet a certain clinical criteria and be referred through the right channels.
The inquiry will continue on Friday, with the ACT Human Rights Commission, the Canberra Catholic Archbishop and the ACT chapter of Exit International among those to give evidence.
Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.
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