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‘People without hope need help to engage with life’

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A few days after my 26-year-old wife died from malignant breast cancer, I sat alone in the living room of our recently purchased home with a bottle of whisky and several boxes of paracetamol.

Looking back on that dark episode, I realise that I was experiencing temporary insanity, and I feel a shudder down my spine just thinking about it. The way I feel now is far different from the way I felt that morning when all I could see ahead was an endless tunnel of black gloom; a life without the woman I loved who had, in the space of a few months, begun dying in front of me. The worst thing had been that there was sod all I could have done about it.

Now, things are very different. Life is good again for now, but my experience has taught me that, just when you think things are stable, they can quite quickly go pear-shaped in the most awful and tragic way.

For Daniel James, that came after a rugby accident. Left almost paralysed, the usually physically active 23-year-old had tried to end his life no fewer than three times before deciding to seek expert help. His parents travelled with him to a Swiss clinic, where he ended it all with a cocktail of lethal drugs.

One of the legacies of this is the resurgence of the dilemma around assisted dying. Baroness Mary Warnock, writing in The Observer, believes that ‘we have a moral obligation to other people to take their seriously reached decisions with regard to their own lives equally seriously’.

Last year, I spoke out about the rise of companies such as Dignitas. I was against the idea then and I’m still against it now. Daniel and others were experiencing that awful moment and, while there was no hope of recovery, with the help of others, their focus may have shifted from a future of gloom to one that seemed a little brighter.

The real challenge is not whether society should embrace assisted dying but, rather, how we as nurses can enable people to turn their thoughts around and engage with their life, however limited or short. Whether the answer lies in more effective pain control, intense psychological intervention or both – there has to be a better way than resorting to a lethal cocktail in a Swiss clinic.

For the sake of our profession, I hope so.

Rob Harteveldt is a cardiac liaison nurse at Stoke Mandeville Hospital

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