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When good people struggle, but stand up

A few weeks ago Dr Rodney Syme confessed on radio that in 2005 he supplied a drug to a dying man – specifically the one that would allow the dying man to hasten his own death. The man, Steve Guest, died at his home two weeks later. The euthanasia debate tears us apart – but listening to Dr Syme, I heard an honest and careful man who struggled under the burden of two sets of rules – those of his conscience and the black letter law variety. He could not longer keep his struggle to himself – and is prepared to deal with the consequences.

I think it is what is called having the courage of your convictions.

During the 774 ABC radio interview  with Nicole Chvastek in April 2014 Dr Syme, 78, basically said he was over the discussion about legalising medically assisted, voluntary euthanasia, and hoped that if he was charged (for inciting or assisting suicide – a crime in Victoria) it would force the court to decide – thereby setting a precedent. And taking it beyond the parliamentary debates where the issue has been stagnating  in the mire of vacillation for decades.

It was only a few hours after the interview aired before the Police re-opened the investigation into the death of Steve Guest whose personal struggle (and the details of the horrific effects of the condition that was killing him) became widely known through 774 ABC morning presenter Jon Faine, who he called at intervals before his death. The death had been investigated previously in 2006.

Dr Syme was no stranger to the topic – a doctor of 50-odd years experience, and author of the book A Good Death An Argument for Voluntary Euthanasia published in 2008 (the book itself carried the risk of legal implications for Dr Syme), nor was he a stranger to 774, where mornings presenter Jon Faine has taken an ongoing interest in his commitment to the issue.

It didn’t take very long before more doctors stepped forward, including a Melbourne GP, and 98  Doctors for Voluntary Euthanasia Choice.

According to a review of his book by Dr Ralph Blunden on the Dying with Dignity Victoria website, (the review is well worth reading for a quick summary of key issues in this debate):

Rodney Syme was born into a well-off medical family and brought up in the conservative surroundings of Melbourne’s establishment. He was educated at a protestant private school and trained as a specialist urologist. His medical training influenced him to reject the metaphysical trappings of religion, but he retained the enlightenment values imbued by family and school. Specifically he identifies compassion, tolerance and inclusiveness as values to which he subscribes.

Quiet resolve was what struck me most about the interview with Dr Syme. And a tiredness and a sadness. It sounded like a struggle to me – in the way that generally quiet, considered people sound when they find themselves in the limelight – exposed, but determined to hold their ground for something larger than themselves.

It is because of his quiet approach, his dogged thoroughness and commitment to thinking through the issue, his first hand experience of dealing with so much suffering (how do people do that?) and his latest, public stance that risks so much, that makes Dr Syme a really interesting person.

Postscript: Melbourne man Peter Short is documenting his terminal illness in the hope that it will make people understand the arguments for the ‘right to choose.’ He was published in The Age on 21 May 2014 (Let there be no doubt, I will decide when I die). In that piece he said:

I have become intimately aware of the debate raging around physician-assisted death and the right for people to choose the timing. Recently, Dr Rodney Syme, in The Age and elsewhere, has declared he has, in contravention to laws that should be changed, helped many terminally ill people end their lives.

Dr Syme is taking risks as he fights for decent and enlightened change. His advocacy has inspired me.

You can follow Peter’s blog Tic toc tic toc dying to a killer clock.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. ok. This one’s tracking a hot line of debate. Surely the right to control of your body – even of your life – should be in your own hands. If I want to live or if I want to die..let me make the decisions. There is so much religious and even humanist insistence on this topic, it is absolutely at the woop and worf of what it is that makes us..us. I wonder…what would be unleashed if we said to the people: “if you no longer wish to be here, you are welcome to check out. Really, it’s ok”?

    July 11, 2014
    • I’m inclined to agree with you. Especially in the case of medically assisted euthanasia where there is (what’s meant to be anyway) a dispassionate professional who doesn’t have anything to gain from the individual materially – and everything to lose professionally if they’re unethical (and ineffective – which doesn’t bear thinking about). Based on what I’ve heard and read, it seems to me that people do decide to check out, and succeed, and doctors do assist them within the bounds of their professional obligations – and this has always been the case. I think the argument is about accepting that this is so – and who is made uncomfortable by the bland and brutal reality that we are mortals. Thanks again for reading!

      July 11, 2014

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