Earlier this year we worked on a film shoot for the Australian TV company SBS Network to produce an interesting report about Euthanasia in Belgium. "A woman I have come to know and like has invited me to share and document the final moments of her life", writes foreign correspondent Brett Mason about his story on euthanasia for Dateline.
Mortality. It’s the great mystery of life.
Not knowing when our time is going to run out. Curiosity, even fear, about what our precious last moments on this earth will be. And who, if anyone, will be there to share them. Many of us place our faith in science, medicine and religion. Ultimately though, the only thing certain about death is that at some point, we will each individually succumb to it.
This is an extremely heavy conversation to be having with myself at five o’clock on a Monday morning. I sigh heavily and clutch the steering wheel tighter than I really need to… nerves. It’s a miserable morning in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Heavy raindrops splatter across my foggy windscreen. I slowly snake my way through this 16th century city and its sea of red taillights, destined for what I know deep down will be one of the more difficult days in my life as a foreign correspondent. Normally when I’m up this early on assignment, the number one priority is finding a good cup of coffee. Not today. I’ve lost my appetite. For a week I’ve lived knowing precisely when, where and how another human will die.
A woman I have come to know and like has invited me to share and document the final moments of her life. It’s hard to imagine someone trusting you to tell a more intimate or important story. I tried last night, as I lay wide-awake in bed, wondering what the day ahead would bring. I’ve been told to prepare myself for a ‘procedure’ that will take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. It’s usually over very quickly, Dr Marc Van Hoey explained, but sometimes it isn’t. “Let’s hope for her – and for you – it’s quick.” I was taken aback - not for the first time in recent weeks - by just how mundane and unremarkable euthanasia is to those who perform it.
I’ve been documenting the process of this physician-assisted death for Dateline right from the beginning. It may be a confronting and challenging experience for me, but ultimately, today’s procedure will be just one of more than 8,700 performed in Belgium since the world’s most liberal euthanasia laws were introduced in 2002. Last year, its parliament went even further, removing a minimum age limit, allowing children of any age to legally end their lives with the help of a doctor if they are able to meet the same criteria as adults. I only truly appreciated the scale of these laws when I saw the papers documenting each individual euthanasia procedure stacked in multiple waist-high piles.
As Dr Van Hoey prepares his medicine, I think back to the first time I’d thought about euthanasia.
Like many Australians, I imagined euthanasia would only be approved for terminally ill patients, suffering a great deal of pain, with only a few months or years to live. Patients like my grandpa Bill who died when I was a boy after suffering from severe liver cancer. Remarkably, and perhaps most uncomfortable of all for me, the woman I am about to say goodbye to is physically fine. Simona de Moor is, for her age of 85, in perfect health. In Belgium, the laws hinge on the highly subjective notion of ‘unbearable suffering’. This suffering can be both physical and psychological. While physical conditions such as cancer are still the most common grounds for euthanasia, there has been a sharp increase in the number of physician-assisted deaths for psychological patients. It is up to each patient to clearly articulate the nature of this suffering and why, to them, it is unbearable. My late grandma Dot suffered from depression and later dementia. Like my late grandpa, she too could hypothetically request and receive euthanasia under Belgium’s laws. I find this difficult to process.
The doctor is ready and it’s time for me to say goodbye. She smiles at me calmly.
I’ve decided to try and do what I’ve done so many times before and use the camera as a buffer between me and the events I’m filming. Only today, I’m not so sure it’s working. When the doctor says it’s time, her only words are ‘finally’ and ‘thank you’. It is over very quickly. More quickly than I had expected. I found it a serene but upsetting experience. I’ve witnessed death personally and professionally many times before, but this was the first time I’ve seen someone take their last breaths willingly, calmly, peacefully. I felt most upset this woman felt there was no reason for her to live. I felt strange, even silly to react this way in the company of a doctor and nurse who deal with death all the time. It was odd not needing to comfort and reassure others in their final moments. I have no doubt that on this precise day it was her sincere decision to die and that she was grateful to live in a country where this wish had been fulfilled. Within half an hour, the documents detailing her euthanasia and explaining why it was legal were handwritten, stamped and signed. They were now being sent to join those towering piles of papers I’d stood beside a few days earlier. The GP who performed her euthanasia was back doing his rounds, curing his patients having just helped one of them die.
It’s lunchtime, but I’m still not hungry. Instead, I’ve sought solace in my favourite place: the ocean. Wandering around Antwerp aquarium, the brightly coloured fish don’t distract my mind as much as I’d hoped. I’m unable to bury a burning sense of anguish in the pit of my stomach. While I fully accept and respect that this decision was the patient’s and the patient’s alone, over these last nine months I’ve been filming in Belgium questions have repeatedly been asked about how this nation’s euthanasia laws are safeguarded.
The one I’d just witnessed illustrates these concerns. Most of all, I just feel sad to have said goodbye to someone who was physically healthy and sharp of mind, but believed the best treatment her doctor could offer her was death.
With thanks to Brett from the SBS website.
See more of Simona’s story in an hour-long Dateline special about euthanasia, Allow Me To Die.