Friday, May 11, 2018

When it's time to check out...

This morning, I'm inspired to write about the curious case of Dr. David Goodall, the British/Australian 104 year old renowned scientist who died in Switzerland yesterday.  Bill told me about Dr. Goodall a couple of days ago, as we were enjoying each other's company in our living room.  Dr. Goodall, who lived in Australia and recently celebrated his last birthday, had tried and failed to kill himself a couple of times.  During his latest attempt, he found himself hospitalized.  Doctors determined he was a "risk" to himself and refused to discharge him until his daughter arranged for a psychiatric evaluation.  At that point, Dr. Goodall decided enough was enough and he'd get professional help checking out of this life.

Euthanasia has been legal in Switzerland since 1941.  Although some countries and a few U.S. states allow for euthanasia in specific situations, Switzerland is the only place where foreigners can go to end their lives, even if they are not terminally ill.  Dr. Goodall spent thousands to travel from his home in Perth, Australia to the Life Cycle clinic outside of Basel, Switzerland.  He was joined by some of his friends and family members, having spent a few days in Bordeaux, France visiting more family.

Dr. Goodall was not terminally ill, but his quality of life had degraded to the point at which he was no longer enjoying it.  His eyesight had deteriorated markedly.  He was confined to a wheelchair and had fallen in his apartment, where he'd be living alone.  No one discovered him for two days.  He could no longer go out into the bush, drive a car, or work.  He described his existence as getting up, sitting, eating, sitting, eating, and going to sleep and declared that his life had stopped being enjoyable years ago.  Although he was able to enjoy his favorite meal of fish and chips and cheesecake the night before his death, Dr. Goodall had said that he no longer enjoyed most of his meals.  His body no longer functioned the way it once did and his world had become unbearably limited.

Yesterday, at about 12:30pm local time, Dr. Goodall was declared dead.  He was surrounded by loved ones, listening to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", having mustered the power to flick the switch that dispensed the overdose of barbiturates that ended his life.  We should all be so lucky to go that way.

Of course, not everyone supported Dr. Goodall's right to check out "early"... if you can call a death at 104 years of age "early".  I was on RfM yesterday and noticed an interesting thread about Dr. Goodall with comments about his decision.  One person referred to the professor as "bored and lazy".  I was pretty astonished by that comment.  Goodall might well have been bored, but he sure wasn't lazy for most of his life.  And if he was lazy at 104, I would expect that he had the right to be that way.

Dr. Goodall, who had three doctoral degrees, was an extremely accomplished man who was productive his entire life.  I read yesterday that he'd retired in 1979, but still worked until just two years ago.  He only stopped working because the powers that be at Edith Cowan University were afraid that he'd hurt himself.  Arrangements were made for him to work from home and he was only allowed to attend pre-arranged meetings at the university.  The decision was later reversed after an uproar.

Although he had a loving family and friends, most of the people who had meant the most to Dr. Goodall had predeceased him.  While he probably could have arranged for assisted living in Australia, it sounds to me like Dr. Goodall was the kind of person who didn't want to bother with it.  When you've spent your whole life doing things your own way, it can be a real kick in the teeth to have to accept help from other people and the inevitable invasion of privacy and inconvenience that comes from that.

While Dr. Goodall agreed that Switzerland is a nice enough country, he would have preferred to have passed away in Australia, which was his home for over seventy years.  Unfortunately, assisted suicide is currently illegal in Australia, although the Parliament of Victoria has passed legislation to allow it.  It will not come into effect until mid 2019, which was longer than Dr. Goodall wanted to wait.  Also, there would be specific conditions applied to the law, which Dr. Goodall might not have been able to meet.

I understand that a lot of people fear legalized assisted suicide because they are afraid people would take advantage of those who are suffering.  I have read comments from people who believe unscrupulous family members hoping for an inheritance or uncaring healthcare professionals will encourage this "easy end" to vulnerable people who might not see another way.  Personally, I don't worry too much about that.  When it comes down to it, everyone must die.  Even if a greedy family member or callous doctor determines it's time for a person to die, ultimately it would still be the dying person's decision.  At this point, the places where assisted suicide is legal have many safeguards in place to protect those who are considering it.

Even in Switzerland, a person who wants help killing themselves must jump through many hoops, including a visit from the Swiss police and discussion with doctors.  Also, there must be no "selfish" motive involved with the voluntary euthanasia.  The law provides the person with the materials to commit suicide, but they must complete the action themselves.  In fact, yesterday Dr. Goodall had problems turning a wheel that would start the flow of drugs.  The wheel was replaced with a switch, which he was able to operate on his own power.

Dr. Goodall was fortunate enough to be able to afford his final exit and he had people who supported his decision to die.  I can't help but think of the plight of other people who suffer endlessly, waiting for their bodies to quit.  While I don't necessarily support the idea of "euthanizing" people that others have deemed to be suffering-- like we might do with a pet-- I do think that people should have the right to determine when they have had enough of life.  Naturally, I would hope that the person considering suicide has been determined not to be suffering from clinical depression or under the influence of another person.  However, when it comes down to it, a person's life should be his or her own.  None of us chose to be born, but I don't think it's unreasonable for competent people to decide when they wish to die... especially when they have already lived for over a century.

It seems to me that Dr. Goodall made a rational, sensible decision yesterday.  I applaud him for exiting life on his own terms, even wearing a shirt that read "Aging disgracefully".  I wouldn't mind going out the same way, if it came down to it.


  1. It's outrageous that anyone would call the man "bored and lazy."

    I don't really know how I will feel about assisted suicide in terms of ending my own life, but I totally support it for anyone who chooses to end things in such a manner. It's sad that it's not readily available to anyone without considerable means.

    1. I agree. I get why some people find it a little scary, but I'd be more scared of languishing in pain for years on end... especially if the rest of my family and friends were gone.


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