‘I’m not a killer’: euthanasia doctor who helped 43 patients die reveals why he’s doing it

IIt’s been two years since Cameron McLaren inserted a needle into Phil Ferrarotto’s arm. Minutes later, the businessman was dead and Cameron was facing his new reality as a doctor who had euthanized one of his own patients.

Since then, Dr McLaren, a 38-year-old medical oncologist, has administered lethal doses of potent drugs to 15 people and witnessed the deaths of 27 other patients who all took the drugs he prescribed.

He is one of 183 doctors in Victoria, South East Australia, who are actively involved in the assisted dying process for terminally ill patients.

It’s a similar process to what some activists and lawmakers would like to see passed in the UK and a bill to legalize physician-assisted dying recently passed second reading in the House of Lords.

The father-of-two, from Melbourne, agreed to speak to The independent about what it was like for him as a clinician trained to save lives, to be involved in the end of so many lives.

When we meet on Zoom, it’s clear from the get-go that he doesn’t see himself as an advocate for physician-assisted dying – he was never a campaigner for Victoria’s law to change before it did. finally do it in 2017.

“What I’m doing is not bad”

But having now helped end the lives of 16 of his own patients and witnessing the deaths of 43 in total, Cameron quickly reveals his deep understanding of the choices his patients face and why what he is not doing is not. wrong.

“What I’m doing is not bad,” he tells me. “He’s loved by patients and their families more than anything I’ve done in medicine. And it is certainly the most rewarding job I have ever done, not only in terms of providing services to patients and their families, but also being able to share my experience and demystify some of the perspectives on medical assistance to patients. to die.

I ask him if he considers himself a killer and his answer goes to the heart of why he and other doctors involved in assisted dying do what they do. It is a matter of patient choice.

“I am not a killer. It is not to kill. Cancer or the underlying medical condition has already done this, it has resulted in the social death of the patient and the end of the quality of life that it deems minimal to want to continue.

“They’re stuck in purgatory between live and die and desperate for the end, and that provides them with that. These people choose to make a decision and control how it goes, and I don’t agree that that’s a bad thing.

Dr McLaren with Katie Harley, daughter of Phil Ferrarotto, the first patient to be euthanized

(Go Gentle Australia)

For Phil Ferrarotto, death was a liberation after 18 years of battling cancer that had invaded several organs and left him struggling to breathe and in almost constant pain. The couple bonded over what they were about to share and Ferrarotto kept his humor until the end; with towers or healers visiting the houses outside, he told Dr McLaren that once they were done, he should take him out so they could “earn the best decoration.”

His appreciation for what Cameron did for him came from beyond the grave. After her death, her daughter Katie Harley took Cameron to another room and handed him a letter her father had written so that the doctor would not be given to her until after her death.

In that note, Ferrarotto said: “I struggled to find a way to thank you for what you have done for me. I chose to write it down so that you can never forget it. Thank you for your bravery in administering the medicine to me today so that I can finally be at peace.

He added: “I am happy and honored to have known you for what seems like a fleeting moment. I am so proud of the work you have done and I am forever grateful to you. “

Cameron has received other family notes, one from the mother of a woman he helped die who is framed on a shelf in his home. It’s a heartfelt expression of thanks from a grieving mother who writes, “Thank you to our lucky stars for coming to us when you did.

“It’s really a question of control”

Dr. McLaren explains that it is this element of giving people choice and control that is at the heart of the assisted dying process. Out of 344 patients for whom he has data, uncontrolled pain or worry about it is not the main reason they apply for a death permit.

“This is the fourth most common reason. The first three are in loss of dignity, being less able to engage in activities that make life pleasant and in loss of autonomy.

“It’s really about control, especially for patients who have ceded control to the medical system for weeks, months or, in some cases, years. This is an opportunity to regain control of the disease that dictates their lives.

“What it allows them to do is have an asset, so if the fear of the end-of-life process becomes real, or actualizes, then they have a way to get around it and work it out. make sure they don’t have the experience they dread.

While death itself is simple – a single 30ml dose of sedating pentobarbital – the process to get it is not. Patients must first find a doctor like Dr. McLaren to make a formal request, and then a chain of reviews begins that involves two doctors, a review board, and a pharmacy team. It can take weeks after the first request is made.

Upon successful completion, patients are given a box with everything they need including an instruction manual, and pharmacists will visit them at home and use a demo kit using icing sugar as an accessory to show patients how to mix. drugs themselves. However, for some patients, like Phil Ferrarotto, their condition is such that it can only be administered through an IV drip administered by a doctor like Cameron.

In the UK, physician-assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act 1961, which provides for a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. A private member’s bill, proposed by Dignity in Dying chairperson and Baroness Meacher, would legalize physician-assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill and mentally competent adults in their final months of life.

Two doctors and a High Court judge would have to come to an agreement before anyone could benefit.

The bill has met with opposition from those who fear that vulnerable people will be coerced or feel a burden. Others believe that the public does not fully understand what is meant by physician-assisted dying.

Dr Carol Davis, consultant in palliative medicine at Southampton University Hospital, said: “The legalization of ‘physician-assisted dying’ in England and Wales would be a moral, ethical and legal seismic change with many consequences. profound implications for society. It is essential that such a significant change does not occur simply because the meaning of “physician-assisted dying” is misrepresented and misunderstood. “

She cites a recent Survation survey of 1,013 people where only 43% correctly understood physician-assisted dying to mean that patients are given medication to end their life.

Dr Davis believes Bill Meacher’s safeguards will not be effective and eligibility is vague.

“I remember putting the needle in his arm”

For Dr McLaren, he is adamant that what he is doing for his patients is the right thing.

He looks back on the experience of Phil Ferrarotto who in his opinion at the end was “barely able to get out of his lounge chair and suffered incredibly from the deprivation of his autonomy. He was a very, very successful and very successful businessman. , highly motivated, and this insult to his ability to take care of himself and his autonomy was absolute torture for him.

“I remember putting the needle in his arm and the voice in my head just hoping that I would miss and that I wouldn’t be able to put the IV in because it’s not that I didn’t want to providing that to Phil, because he was so I got into it, and I knew I was providing a service he desperately wanted. But it was a hard thing to do. It really is. “

Over time he expected to be upset with what he had done and been a part of, but it never happened: “I didn’t have two minds about what I was doing. . To ignore someone who is in pain and their pleas for help is to hurt them. We do it in a humane way, the medicine we choose does not harm patients, it does not cause distress.

“What I don’t respect are people saying, you shouldn’t get anywhere near this. Or their patients, you shouldn’t go near them. If a person does not want to participate in this, they must be fully taken care of. And whether it is a patient who wants to die naturally and without assistance, or whether it is a doctor who does not want to provide the service. It is totally true. This should be protected and supported at all times. But it’s nobody’s position to put that perspective on someone else.

“It doesn’t matter what I think, it doesn’t matter what the patient in the chair or in bed thinks and I have yet to see any polls, or research with evidence, to say that patients terminally ill with advanced disease do not want this.

“We shouldn’t be looking at data from the general population or MPs. They are not the ones who get a vote on this issue. I think the only people who should have a voice here are people with disease who face these choices and face this path and would like a choice along the way. And I think it is our responsibility to legislate and support their points of view rather than forcing our own on them.

As he signs the session, Dr McLaren remembers a quote from philosopher John Stuart Mill that ends: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” which he says sums up his position on medical assistance in dying.

The UK has yet to resolve this issue. The assisted dying bill will return to the House of Lords, but even if it succeeds, it will have to win the support of members of the House of Commons.

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