While there is no shortage of positive words that can be used to describe Australian nurses, one term that doesn’t get brought up enough is ‘bravery.’
Dedicating your career to the wellbeing of other people is selfless, but forming the types of close bonds required to deliver care is extremely courageous when some of those people may not have long to live.
Becoming a nurse is a commitment to the idea of putting the needs of others before any needs of your own, and there is no greater example of this notion than a 60-year-old retired nurse by the name of Margaret Radmore.
Margaret spent over 40 years working in the Australian health care system, and in that time her duties included providing comfort and care to cancer patients who were in the midst of a losing battle.
But now, sadly, Margaret is battling a terminal illness of her own.
The mother-of-two was diagnosed with bowel cancer five years ago, and received the all-clear from doctors after extensive treatment – but unfortunately, her joy was short-lived.
A routine trip to the Epworth Hospital for a minor procedure took a tragic turn last May when Margaret was told that cancer had returned and spread to her lymph nodes and liver, forcing doctors to inform Margaret that she did not have long to live.
After exhausting her efforts with chemotherapy, and equipped with extensive first-hand knowledge of the suffering and hardships that she would inevitably face in the final stages of her fight with cancer, Margaret made the bold decision to take control of her own destiny and opt to exercise her newfound right to end her own life.
Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) became legal in Victoria only two days ago, and Margaret will be among the first in the state to receive the fatal cocktail of prescription drugs.
Margaret spoke with HelloCare yesterday, and it’s an honour for us to be able to share her journey with our readers.
“When I turned jaundice overnight at the Epworth in Melbourne while I was having a minor procedure, they assured me that it wouldn’t be cancer-related. They said that it was likely to be gallstones or something to do with the drugs that I was given for the procedure – basically, anything but cancer,” said Margaret.
“So when they walked in and said ‘we’re very, very sorry (cancer), but you have enough time to get your affairs in order,’ it knocked me off my feet. I was just shattered.”
After receiving the crushing news that cancer had returned, Margaret began chemotherapy treatment once again, in an effort to rid her body of the cancerous tumours that had taken hold – but the process was riddled with problems and complications from the outset.
“I had nausea, vomiting, loss of taste, and a lethargy that you just can’t imagine. Even putting clothes on the clotheshorse was an effort some days, and after the last hiccup – which was severe pain and bleeding from the bowel, and rushing off to the hospital. I said to my family – ‘I can’t do it anymore,” said Margaret.
“I started to feel better after the poison from the chemo was excreted from my body, but I was still left with the fear of a bad death, and when I found out that there was going to be a choice for me, an alternative, it has just been a real comfort to me. And I fell a lot more settled about it all.”
A lifetime of caring for people with terminal illnesses, coupled with living life while battling a terminal illness, gives Margaret an insight on the topic of Euthanasia and VAD that even the most esteemed researchers cannot begin to understand.
Margaret’s willingness to share her story is a testament to the courage and selfless nature that she has displayed throughout her life, and the qualities that made her a nurse, are the same that have allowed her to become an advocate for a person’s right to die with dignity.
Despite her hardships, Margaret has actually been abused online by those who have a moral objection to euthanasia, the majority of which do so based on religious beliefs.
Religion has long been a thorn in the side of those calling for people to have the right to end their own lives, with Catholic Archbishops recently calling the new laws in Victoria a ‘deeply troubling’ chapter of health care in Victoria.
“You know, obviously there are people who don’t believe that this is the right way to go, and that’s absolutely fine for them. I just hope that there are not too many people already suffering who are not able to bring up the subject,” said Margaret.
“It’s very natural that families don’t want to lose you, and they don’t want to talk about anything that hastens death, and they want to hang on to the person they love for as long as possible, but I hope the people that are against it for religious reasons can become a bit more open to it.”
“It’s not everyone that’s horrible, but I’ve had people in various threads on Facebook telling me that I’m going ‘straight to hell’ and ‘suicide is not the answer’, ‘harden up’ and things like that.
But I don’t spend much time thinking about the people who don’t believe in it. I’m just glad that It’s an option.
While the terrible circumstances that have forced Margaret into this role as an unofficial advocate for dying with dignity were obviously unexpected, the issue of euthanasia and the often taboo subject of death, have actually been a theme in Margaret’s life from a very young age.
“Both my parents were nurses, and they were actually members of the voluntary euthanasia society back then, so I have actually grown up in a nursing environment, and we would openly talk about death and dying,” said Margaret.
“My first experience with death was as a 16-year-old, and unfortunately a lady had committed suicide by gassing herself in her car near where we lived up in the bush at Trafalgar South, and my father was called by the neighbours to deal with the situation because they thought he could help, and he said ‘you better come with me, its part of your education.’ so I was very open to death and dying, even as a teenager.“
“It doesn’t make you any less compassionate, but unfortunately I’ve seen many bad deaths and I think one of my earliest thoughts – apart from the grief over what was happening to me – was the terror of what my death was going to look like, how sick I was going to get, and how awful it was going to be. Being a nurse, I’ve seen people die of liver cancer and it’s not pretty. Not pretty at all.”
Despite her long history with the topic, the news that Voluntary Assisted Dying had become legal in Margaret’s home state of Victoria actually came as a shock, but simply having the peace of mind that she would have the power to end her struggles with cancer at a time of her choosing, came as a welcome relief amongst all the previous bad news.
“Even though I was aware of the work being done towards the legislation, somehow I missed the fact that the law had actually passed,” said Margaret.
“My very dear friend told me about it, around the same time that I gave up Chemo in March, she said ‘you know it becomes law on Jun the 19th?’ and I said ‘really?’ I just didn’t realise there was a date.”
“I struggled because of the fear of death. It’s very complex when you get a diagnosis telling you that you’re going to die. But I had such a terrible, terrible time with chemo, it was just awful. “
“I had every complication, all my doctors would say ‘ you’re just so unlucky Marg’ and this happened every step of the way, something always went wrong. I ended up with septicemia, the bacteria is still in my body, so I’m on lifelong antibiotics.”
“Even though I’m quite well at the moment and looking at me, you wouldn’t think I was terminally ill. That can change very soon and without very much warning at all. My liver is enlarged and the tumor is getting better every time I get a CAT scan. I just wanna be prepared, I wanna have the kit and be able to put it away and forget about it and get on with life.”
While the prospect of only having months to live is never far from Margaret’s immediate thoughts, having this knowledge has made living life to the fullest her number one priority, as she enjoys the days with her beloved family in the Victorian seaside town of Inverloch.
“It’s a luxury having retired. I go out to lunch with friends, friends come to visit from near and far, I’ve got my little dog, I go walking on the beach with my little dog in the good weather, I go and bodyboard down the surf beach. And my grandchildren are a huge part of my life.”
“My daughter and the girls live around the corner from me, so I’m there to help with the girls. They’re staying over tonight because their mum has to work tomorrow, so it’s a very full busy life.”
Margaret does not have a bucket-list of things that she is trying to get through at the moment, and it’s very apparent that the thing that she values most with her remaining time is her family.
“I have never thought about a bucket list type of concept, I did think a trip to Bali with the girls would be nice, but unfortunately, that’s probably not likely. So other than that no. I just enjoy every day, the really simple things in life.”
“I’ve been very open, we are a very open family. So from the get-go, I have been able to talk to my family about everything.”
“I’m a real control freak, one of the first things I did was get my super paid out so I could pay off my loans so the kids wouldn’t have to worry about that when I’m gone and battle with banks. There has always been very open discussions, and they wouldn’t imagine anything other than what I’m doing, and they certainly wouldn’t stand in the way.”
While it’s even sad to try and imagine exactly what Margaret is going through, her bravery throughout her situation is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and it’s amazing to witness this level of courage in the face of such dire circumstances.
And even though exercising the right to take your own life may initially seem like the actions of someone who has lost all hope, in speaking to Margaret, it’s clear that these are the actions of someone who wants to be able to choose the quality of life they live, as opposed to simply waiting to die.
Photo courtesy of Eddie Jim/ The Age