Palliative care deeply misunderstood

Natasha Michael (Supplied)

What matters most? Palliative Care Week calls for Australians to consider that question, writes Cabrini Health’s Natasha Michael. Source: The Age.

I recollect vividly the moment I questioned my path in medicine. Training at some of the leading teaching hospitals prepared me for almost every medical encounter – except that of death.

The image of an elderly man grasping tightly at my hand as his wife of more than 60 years gasped, drawing her last breaths, remains etched forever in my mind. I was 26 years old, and simply did not know what to say or do, or how to behave. It was the ultimate failure of my medical training.

What mattered most to him? Dignity and comfort come to mind, but he simply begged me to save his wife’s life. The default position would be to draw up a list of investigations, autopilot into the causes of heart failure and discuss resuscitation status. This is what I did.

Today, my eyes, ears, hands and a chair are now my tools. What matters most? They simply seek a navigator through these torrential rapids. “What do we say to our children?” “Who pays our bills?” “What do we say to schools and friends?” These are just some of the questions I am asked.

Palliative care is deeply misunderstood. It is viewed simply as the care of the dying, without understanding the totality of what it can offer when it is done well. Stories of bad deaths arise not simply from the memory of the repugnance of death, but from one of ill preparation and a failure of professionals and society to help families delve deeply into what matters most.

The introduction of the voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria on June 19 will remind us of the occasional failure of medicine. Healthcare was designed with disease in mind, not people.

The legislation introduces three major threats to healthcare: validating suicide as an acceptable choice; accepting substandard medical care by supporting the lack of rigour in defining eligibility; and finally, introducing into the healthcare curriculum the intentional ending of life as acceptable medical treatment. Hereby, a new generation of healthcare professionals abdicate their commitment to the sick.

Associate Professor Natasha Michael is director of palliative medicine at Cabrini Health.


We can’t let voluntary assisted dying negate our commitment to the ill (The Age

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