Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Essay

How it feels to help a terminally ill patient to die a dignified death

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 07 February 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k116
  1. Sabine Netters, consultant in medical oncology
  1. Isala Oncology Centre, Zwolle, Netherlands
  1. f.j.s.netters{at}

Shortening life to end uncontrollable pain can sometimes be part of her responsibility as a doctor, writes Sabine Netters, but it has unique emotional effect on the professionals involved, and this aspect is often missing in the debate about assisted dying

It’s 6 o’clock on a Monday evening, and in the next couple of hours I’m going to help kill someone. We made the decision 10 days ago, after he asked me, a trainee in medical oncology, for help. The specialist, my supervisor, is waiting. We join the patient and his family one last time and chat a little. It’s bizarre—in an hour he’ll be gone. I flush the drip; it’s flowing well. That’s good, because he’s difficult to inject after all the chemotherapy.

We walk back out of the room. The specialist prepares the medication. He holds the syringes up against the light. He looks at me, and I nod.

We don’t say anything. The head of department arrives, as does the nurse. Nurses are never obliged to attend euthanasia, but having been fully involved in the man’s care, she chose to help.

My supervisor hasn’t put me under any pressure either. Quite the contrary: I wanted to be there. It was me who the patient asked for help.

Two weeks ago I popped in to see him on my way home. He intrigues me. Not because he’s younger than the other patients. And not because he has cancer. Everyone in this section has cancer.

But he doesn’t inspire pity and doesn’t want to. That is what moved me. He has come to terms with it all: the cancer, the chemotherapy, the side effects, and the metastases. He’s way ahead of me. I can’t accept it when treatments fail. I’m furious that time and again I have to …

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