I take pride in the calibre of nursing I provide – I’m good at what I do, thanks to a combination of aptitude, experience, education, compassion, intellect, and reflective practice.
So I understand why many palliative care nurses are upset, offended, angered, and otherwise unhappy about the voluntary assisted dying movement in general, and Go Gentle’s Stop The Horror film in particular – it seems to say that palliative care isn’t good enough, that too many people suffer at the end of life, that patients and families can’t trust their expertise, and that their expert, skilled, informed care isn’t valued or valuable.
I’m sorry that this is how the push for VAD is perceived. It’s not the belief held by anyone I’ve communicated with; without exception, their position is the same as mine – quality palliative care is the best, more effective, most appropriate intervention for the overwhelming majority of dying patients; we need to improve access to and funding for palliative care; and there are a small number of cases (industry estimates vary from 2-4% of patients) where symptom management is ineffective or inadequate, despite the best interventions available. These are the patients for whom another option is appropriate.
Acknowledging that there is still room for improvement is part of reflective professionalism and best practice. Responding to first-hand experiences of colleagues and family members with, “That wasn’t good palliative care!” is defensive and unhelpful – it means their experience is dismissed, along with a learning opportunity. Often that’s right – there were gaps in care, or in knowledge, or prescribing, or in anticipating how rapidly the patient’s dying trajectory would escalate.
And sometimes the person received the very best care possible, but their intractable nausea, terminal dyspnoea, restlessness and agitation, seizures, neurological pain, or distress couldn’t be resolved. That happens. It really does. Not often, but not never.
Transplanted organs reject. Antibiotics don’t succeed. Wounds don’t heal. Surgery is unsuccessful. Hypertension doesn’t resolve. Asthma doesn’t respond. Intubation isn’t enough. Labile BGL’s don’t stabilise. DIC runs rampant. HBO is ineffective. Chemotherapy fails. Autoimmune diseases rampage. HIV progresses. The flu kills.
Mostly we win the battle, if not the war; we never win the war – eventually, all our patients die. But whatever our specialty, we’re never effective all of the time. We’re just not. And that’s as true for those who midwife death as it is for those who work to defeat it.
Acknowledging that doesn’t invalidate our work, our value, our effectiveness, our professionalism, or the difference we make. It just means that we still have room for better.
I hope we’ll one day have no need for voluntary assisted dying – that nobody will suffer, and that all anticipated deaths are gentle. We’re not there yet, and it’s cruel to deny peace to those we can’t help enough.