She begged me to help her die. I tried, but failed - Susan's story

Being posted under the gamma camera, Prof Mike Sathekge looking on. Image by Masi Losi

In September 2000 Susan came down with stomach pains and was told she had adult gripe. Two weeks later,  the same thing. A few days later we got up as usual, I left for work while she was getting ready to go to work.

Mid-morning I got a call from our local doctor who told me that she had been admitted to hospital. Susan worked at his surgery as a receptionist, so we were close.  When I got to the hospital I was told Susan was stable. After saying she felt sick she went to the loo where she basically bled out. She came to, crawled to the phone and rang the doctor.

They put four units of blood into her. They conducted a lot tests and concluded that Susan had cancer. It was supposedly only a small cancer - size of an adult thumb nail - at the top of her stomach. We were told it would be a simple process – go in, cut it out, and take some of the stomach with it.  They said that Susan, who had just turned 40, would be in and out of surgery within two hours.

I have no family and I didn't get on too well with her brothers and sisters, so I was at the hospital by myself, pacing the floors while she was in surgery.  About an hour later the surgeon came out. I knew that something was wrong. He told me Susan has cancer throughout the stomach and that he couldn't do anything . If Susan was lucky she might make six months.

How do you live when you know your partner has only six months to live?  We decided to just get on with living life. We weren't married so we planned to do it. But how, with so many friends in so many places? We decided to have two weddings.  One at my workplace, a winery, and the second at her mother’s shack by the beach.

By this time Susan had lost a lot of weight. She was frail and needed regular morphine. The cancer was building up fluid in her stomach so, fortnightly to begin with and later weekly, she had to go to hospital to get the fluids drained – up to 5 litres per visit.

Susan was losing her will too eat. We tried a few things, but she had no appetite and battled to keep anything down. I would slip outside when Susan was asleep to have a joint to chill out – sometimes she would send me out to have a smoke. While smoking I got to thinking about Susan and her eating.  I decided to ask a friend to make me a batch of hash cookies for her.

I sat Susan down with a cup of tea & half a cookie. She had a solid 6 hours of sleep afterwards. While she was sleeping I cooked a roast and was delighted when she woke up hungry. She had the best feed she had had for a long time. She didn't even vomit as she normally would.

Over a 3 week period she did well - decreased her morphine, was eating and sleeping better. But the cancer had the upper hand hand. Susan was slowly losing her independence & this was hurting her. The pain grew so strong that she eventually had a morphine pump in her chest.

Susan’s will to live was fading - her body had almost given up, but her mind hadn't. One day I lifted her out of her bed and carried her to the couch. She so loved being on the couch. My heart was breaking because I felt useless. As I sat there she asked me to end it for her. I made her a solemn promise that I would help her.

So I turned her morphine pump up and Susan soon went to sleep. But that didn't work. She asked me to try again. As much as I wanted her to go and be at rest, I found my heart and head spinning. The look in her eyes and the tears that flowed strengthened my resolve, so I held a cloth over her mouth and although she initially tried to keep my hand in place, she eventually pushed it away, saying that she could still breathe. She pleaded with me to end it, so I put a plastic bag in the middle of the cloth. We tried again. Susan started to fight, but I just couldn't do it. She sadly thanked me for trying.

Susan suffered for three more weeks and eventually passed away in my arms. The date and time of her death and burned into my memory. Susan fought hard from day one until the end – 7 months and 12 days.


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