Dr Rodney Syme: gave a dying man Nembutal. Photo: Angela Wylie
Voluntary euthanasia campaigner Dr Rodney Syme has admitted giving a dying man the lethal drug Nembutal two weeks before he killed himself.
In a disclosure that could trigger a test case for physician-assisted suicide Dr Syme said he gave Steve Guest Nembutal while he was dying from oesophageal cancer in July 2005, because he was suffering intolerable physical and psychological pain and needed control over the end of his life.
Two weeks later, Mr Guest, 58, died in his Port Lonsdale home from an overdose of Nembutal, the barbiturate used by veterinarians to kill animals and which is also being increasingly traded on the black market in Australia.
As in Victoria, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are criminal offences in NSW, carrying heavy penalties, up to life imprisonment if convicted of murder. Aiding or abetting the suicide of another person carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.
NSW parliament voted against a bill introduced by the Greens last year giving terminally ill people who are over 18 and mentally capable the right to an assisted death.
Dr Syme, 78, said after watching state Parliaments reject 16 euthanasia bills over the past 20 years he was ready to "out" himself and be charged over Mr Guest's death because a court case could set a useful legal precedent for doctors who are too scared to help terminally ill people end their own lives.
"I just believe passionately that there are too many people suffering too much not to try a little bit harder to change things, and a lot of these things, it seems, will only be changed in a court decision, so bring it on," said the urologist and vice-president of Dying with Dignity Victoria.
''I said in 1992 that if the law wasn't changed in 10 years I would create a court challenge and here we are 12 years later and it still hasn't happened. It was beginning to get to me. I'd think, where is my courage?''
Before he died, Mr Guest spoke on radio about his illness and the fact that he wanted to die a peaceful, dignified death at the time of his choosing. He also made it clear that he intended to end his own life.
After Mr Guest’s death, Dr Syme told media outlets that he had given him ‘‘information about barbiturates’’ and ‘‘medication’’ which prompted two police interviews in 2005 and 2008. But Dr Syme said he never answered questions about whether he had given Mr Guest Nembutal because it would have given police ''the full hand'' to prosecute him.
''I just wasn't prepared, I didn't have the courage to take it on at that particular time,'' he said.
Dr Syme said that when he met Mr Guest, he could not swallow and was starving to death. His pain was somewhat relieved by morphine, but this meant he was constantly dopey and nauseous. Dr Syme said Mr Guest was terrified of being admitted to a hospital or hospice for the rest of his life.
‘‘Steve had significant physical suffering, but even more intolerable was his psychological and existential suffering. He had a profound sense of loss of control over his life ... He had a primal fear, felt by many dying people, which can consume the precious time around the end of life,’’ Dr Syme said in a statement provided exclusively to Fairfax Media.
‘‘Relief of this often unrecognised psychological and existential suffering is one of the most important palliative actions a doctor can take, and it is best achieved by giving that person control over the end of their life.’’
Dr Syme said after talking with Mr Guest for two hours on July 12, 2005, he gave him the drug Nembutal. While he could foresee that he might end his life with the drug, Dr Syme said his primary intention was to improve his mental health and allow him to do what he wanted to do in the last days of his life.
‘‘I did advise and support Steve Guest in his terminal illness, and gave him medication (Nembutal) which was remarkably effective palliation as he gained the strength to advocate for law reform over the subsequent two weeks,’’ Dr Syme said in the statement.
Paul Russell, executive director of Hope – Preventing Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, said he hoped Dr Syme would be prosecuted to maintain and uphold the law which is designed to protect vulnerable people.
Mr Russell said there were many aspects of this case that should be scrutinised, including where Dr Syme was getting Nembutal from, and whether he knew enough about Mr Guest to consult with him on end-of-life matters instead of Mr Guest's own regular doctor. He also questioned how Dr Syme assessed people's mental health in such circumstances.
‘‘People can appear to be quite rational when perhaps they are not,’’ he said.
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au