Johannesburg - Two years ago Dr Sue Walter was diagnosed with multiple myeloma - a bone cancer that forced her to stop practising medicine and take up the cause to fight for the rights of people who are undergoing extreme irremediable suffering to have access to assisted dying or euthanasia.
A court case about access to assisted dying or euthanasia is expected to be heard during the second half of this year in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg. The 45-year-old mother of two said she had decided not to receive treatment - one of the few who make the choice.
She is not on chemotherapy, nor is she on radiotherapy.
“I’m not having surgery. It’s been hard but we’ve gone through it with pain tablets. We are treating my symptoms of bone pain, fatigue, nausea, etc but it’s been hard because a lot of people expect you to go on treatment. When you don’t, you get quite an angry response that you’re not following protocol.”
Walter has had to stop working because she gets very tired, although she’s given talks around the world. She said that she would never change her mind about not taking treatment because she believes that a lot of patients die because of the treatment.
“I was diagnosed two years ago, and I made the decision since the beginning, of (saying) no treatment. I’ve seen patients on treatment and the results have not been very good. In my family, they all know what’s going on and they’re all supportive. My children are my rock,” she said.
Last week Walter - a qualified psychologist and medical doctor - gave a presentation to health professionals at the Wits Medical School in Johannesburg about her work as a palliative care specialist and establishing a palliative care unit in the private sector with the hope of exposing more health professionals to the discipline.
The talk was also a personal reflection on the right to access assisted dying.
Walters and her husband established a non-profit foundation five years ago called the 11 Angels Foundation, which helps people who don’t have finances to receive palliative care. They hold fund-raisers to help patients who cannot afford their palliative care.
“In South Africa, there’s no help from the law or from anyone. We are actually fighting for euthanasia to take place to help our population in their dying needs. It is also important for patients to know that this is available to them because it helps them to enjoy a happier life, knowing there is help available for them should they need it.”
Addressing the difference between assisted dying and euthanasia, Walters said euthanasia is when a doctor administers a lethal dose which will result in the patient’s death.
“Whereas assisted dying is where the doctor will issue the patient a script and that script will contain lethal medications. The patient by him- or herself must go to the pharmacy and get the script filled and then go home and then administer it themselves,” she said.
Walter added that there’s a lot of information that needs to be sent out regarding these two concepts.
“If your religion or culture does not see fit or opposes euthanasia, then there’s no pressure on that patient. It is not a prescription that a doctor gives. It is really a personal choice. With that in mind, we are protecting the vulnerability of patients.
“Many dying patients are vulnerable, but we’ve put in many measures. The patient won’t have to make a quick decision, it would be their decision but they will have to go through two physicians to ensure that they are in fact terminally ill. And then they’ll have to go through a period of excellent palliative care where they would also be assessed by a psychiatrist. Only after all of that,” said Walter and if the patient still wants it, will it be considered.