A ‘completed life’ deserves a dignified ending

January 25, 2024
Book cover, Rodney Syme addresses a protest
Dr Rodney Syme addresses a Dying With Dignity rally outside Victorian Parliament in 2008. Photo: Les O'Rourke via anmfvic.asn.au

A Completed Life
By Dr Rodney Syme
Melbourne: Dying With Dignity Victoria, 2023

When voluntary assisted dying campaigner Dr Rodney Syme passed away from a stroke in 2021 aged 86, he had recently lost his beloved wife to dementia — he called it “the worst disease known to man” — and A Completed Life lay in almost-completed pieces on his desk.

Born into a Melbourne establishment family, Syme was a renowned surgeon and researcher who began advocating for voluntary assisted dying after treating an incurable cancer patient in 1972. He was ultimately awarded an Order of Australia in 2019 for services to social welfare and law reform.

Syme was a fearless maverick, and like his colleague Dr Philip Nitschke — founding Director of the not-for-profit Exit International — risked his career, reputation and his liberty to grant his dying patients’ wishes.

Through the generosity of his children and dedication of advocates, this very valuable book on end of-life human rights was published posthumously last year by Dying with Dignity Victoria (DWDV).

Contributors include DWDV’s Dr Nick Carr, Better Off Dead podcast creator Andrew Denton and Australian actor Guy Pearce. Pearce’s haunting letter, “I’m Sorry, Mum”, highlights his feelings of guilt and helplessness over failing to prevent the protracted agony of his Alzheimer’s-suffering mother.

At a macro level, Syme paints a complex portrait of the intricate strands that weave purpose and meaning into a life and a community.

What is “life”? What are the things that render it worthwhile to an individual? To a society? What’s the threshold for “terminal? What does a“completed life” look like?

At a micro level Syme gives painfully detailed accounts of unconscionable treatment of already dying people

Parallel to the 2021 Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, he reveals a terrifying account of our almost total societal abandonment of the basic human rights and bodily autonomy of our most vulnerable: dementia sufferers, the aged, the disabled and the terminally ill.

He outlines in forensic clinical detail the extraordinary lengths the state and its medical professions will go to to keep those in terminal suffering alive “at all costs”, subjecting them to unwanted and pointless medical and mental health interventions.

He decries the plight of people “taken hostage” in “Aged Care: Our second prison system” and is scathing of its catastrophic failures, laying blame squarely at the feet of privatisation.

Bedside drivers of denial of rights are many: Doctors and clinicians fear of legal entanglements, interfering family members, lack of understanding of the law, institutional religious conservatism and the lack of written patient advanced care directives or orders. These are all covered extensively in the book and all play a part, shivering in the shadow of an aged care sector run for corporate profit and cynical political gain.

Readers are challenged to communicate openly about death as part of normal life, to make their wishes known well ahead of time, to confront their own mortality and to show truly unconditional love by letting go of a terminal loved one.

It’s a confronting, informative read, and an ominous warning for anyone contemplating institutionalising a loved one. It recognises the inherent economic and housing blockers to in-home care, but leaves no doubt the aged care system is now the problem, not the solution.

Whether a patient or doctor, family or friend, carer or nurse, if you genuinely seek to understand the sometimes harrowing clinical realities of end of life care of a loved one, and why so many people demand legal voluntary assisted dying, then A Completed Life is essential reading.

Better to read it now, before it’s too late.

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