Four Corners - A Good Death

It's a telling statistic that seven out of ten Australians die what might be called an "expected death". In many cases doctors can tell patients roughly how long they have to live. In reality, only a few take advantage of those warnings. Instead they prefer to believe that somehow modern medicine will save them. Now a small group of doctors and nurses are warning that our obsession with curing illness is leaving patients poorly cared for and unprepared for death.

In a nondescript building just a short walk from the centre of Sydney the Sacred Heart Palliative Care Centre is housed. There, a small group of health care professionals are devoting their lives to death. The people they treat are perhaps the bravest in our community. All diagnosed with a terminal illness, they have accepted their fate but are determined to make the best of the time they have left - in effect, to die "a good death".

Four of those people agreed to allow Four Corners to spend time with them as they came to terms with their diagnosis and entered the final stages of their life. Their reasons for doing this were varied but in essence they all hoped that by documenting their last days of life and their death they could help others deal with the experience.

If you talk to any of the people at Sacred Heart they will quickly tell you that they believe too many people run away from the prospect of death, and for that they pay a terrible price. For palliative care patient Darryl Calver the acceptance of his situation meant he could agree to a treatment that would stabilise his condition and give him time to sort out family relationships that had frayed at the edges.

A major part of making terminally ill patients feel better is pain management. Balancing the need to control pain while allowing the patient to remain active and alert is a job that takes real expertise. Unfortunately not everyone has the training to do it.

Professor Ken Hillman, from the University of New South Wales, told Four Corners that the failure to accept the limitations of modern medicine means that too many patients end up in acute care hospital wards. Those wards are not designed to provide the environment or the treatment that allows for "a good death".

If there is one final message that comes from the terminally ill and those who care for them it is this: palliative care must be accepted as an integral part of medicine and resourced appropriately. If that is done, more people might be able to come to terms with the prospect of death and be able to make the most of the time they have left.

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45 mins
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