The dying art of communication

By Ron Wain, Joint Managing Director, Deep South Media

His was the voice of medical authority in an NHS hospital corridor, not far from the dying rooms where you and I have a future appointment.

A weary doctor, who has seen it all so many times.

“Sorry. There is nothing I can do to hasten your mother’s death.”

My mother, 78, in agony, the razor-sharp fingers of terminal cancer playing their violent tune on her emaciated, once-proud body.

Her brown eyes filled with rage, desperation: “Look at me, son. If I was a dog, they would put me down.”

Helpless, bewildered, engulfed in grief, I could only nod in pity, silently questioning the Hippocratic Oath that physicians swear by.

Of that Oath, written by Hippocrates, the father of medicine in Ancient Greece, this: “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan…”

Which takes us to the Assisted Dying Bill, rejected in a conscience vote by a two-to-one majority in the packed House of Commons on Friday just gone.

There were excellent media relations campaigns from opponents and backers alike, with their arguments backed by evidenced figures.

In essence, doctors would have been allowed to prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to the terminally ill in England and Wales, aged 18 or over, who ask for it and who are deemed to have up to six months left to live.

They would have had to have “voluntary, clear, settled and an informed wish” to end his or her life.

Critics of the Bill successfully argued on legal, religious and moral grounds, citing potential abuse by greedy inheritors putting pressure on the vulnerable to end their lives. They said it encouraged a state-sanctioned culture of suicides.

Campaigners countered with the right to self-determination, saying we should be able to act under own free will, that there will be protocol safeguards in place to prevent subtle or blatant coercion.

Both sides brought their views to the fore, either directly to the media or through press offices and pressure groups at various religious and secular organisations. Regional newspapers canvassed the opinions of local MPs.

Perhaps the way you feel about assisted dying depends on experience?

My hero mum, Joan Wain née Burn, who left rural Northumberland for the bright lights of London at just 17, slipped into a coma for three days before she passed away peacefully in my arms, in a gently-lit side room to the soul-stirring sounds of the John Rutter hymn For the Beauty of the Earth.

But not before she awoke briefly to say three words, the last ones, delivered straight from the heart, a sacred place that not even invidious cancer dare breach.

“I love you.”

Words spoken with the spine-tingling heft of an ancient lineage where courage and endurance reside.

A mother of three, and a grandmother to eight, Joan had done her final selfless act in those three words – she was transferring her inner strength to the next generation, a passing of the baton.

But for her, tormented by unbearable pain, the Hippocratic Oath, despite the best of intentions, had rung hollow.

Yes, the Macmillan nurse said my mum had the “best death” she had seen in a year because compassion is love in action; you have to put your own heartbreak aside to ensure the final journey of a loved one is the best it can be.

However, my mum would have preferred the choice to exit the theatre of life at her choosing because the last few weeks of her “colourful” life were physical torture.

Indeed, my beloved father, Richard, who had an degenerative illness, darkly joked long before his death from a stroke at 74 about joining the “Texan gun club”. He would have, had the law been in place, with medication replacing a revolver. Sadly, he died alone.

Both parents wanted to pass over with dignity in the manner of their choosing, at their own hand, in a time and place which would offer them succour.

Of course, this is a highly emotive issue.

There is no right or wrong answer to the subject of assisted dying.

For communicators on this and on any subject, however straight-forward or complex, it is only right to ensure that we support our assertions with facts and figures.

Those for and against assisted dying did just that.

But facts and figures can never convey the wretchedness of the end where terminal illness is in the driving seat and the patient a helpless, frightened passenger.

Me? When the time comes, I would like the comfort of knowing I can say goodbyes to the people who fill my heart and soul with love, that my hands are on that driving wheel.

Joan Wain with Ron Wain* Ron is pictured with his mum, Joan Wain, a few years ago.