Assisted dying: He was Jenny's most important patient. But she couldn't help him

Paramedic Jenny Moncur has spoken about the death of her husband Royce. Photo: Justin McManus
Paramedic Jenny Moncur has spoken about the death of her husband Royce. Photo: Justin McManus

Jenny Moncur used to believe euthanasia was a sin, but more than 40 years working as a nurse and a paramedic, and a broken promise, has changed that.

When her husband Royce was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she was confident that she would be able to ease his suffering.

Jenny had always considered providing pain relief to be among the most important parts of her job. She had cared for hundreds of dying people over the years. Royce was to be her most important patient.

"I had good help from palliative care, I had a good range of medications to help him with his pain, I wasn't afraid of using the medication. I was happy to give him injections," Jenny said.

So she promised him he would not suffer.

Photographed in her Ambulance Victoria uniform, Jenny Moncur is lending her support to Victoria's proposed assisted dying laws.

The legislation introduced in Parliament this month would give people suffering from an incurable illness, with less than a year to live, access to lethal medication.

There are passionate arguments for and against the laws, which are yet to pass. Jenny's story is unique because, as a nurse of 23 years and paramedic of 19 years, she should have been better placed than most to provide the best care for her dying husband.

Jenny and Royce had been together since they were teenagers, when they met at a local judo club. They were married for 36 years and had two children.

Royce on holiday in Whistler, Canada, before he was diagnosed with cancer. Photo: Supplied

Royce on holiday in Whistler, Canada, before he was diagnosed with cancer. Photo: Supplied

Royce was a doer, the type of person who would get things done and make things work. He had recently built their house in the agricultural town of Rosedale. It is the shape of a boomerang, made of corrugated iron and totally off grid.

"He was my rock," Jenny said. "He was like a solid stake in the ground and I was sort of bouncing around on an elastic string, backwards and forwards.

"He was a phenomenal man."

Royce was fit and healthy one day, then he wasn't. In mid-2013, he cycled from the bottom of England to the top of Scotland. Two months later, he was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer, along with multiple secondary cancers.

The 60-year-old had surgery, and it was hoped that treatment could extend his life for a few years.

Up until his diagnosis, Royce was still working as a part-time science teacher at Seaspray Primary School, along Victoria's regional east coast. He also had a one-man travelling performance that visited many schools around Australia. It was known as the FlowFlightFlickFlashFloatFun Science Show.

But at the start of the next year Royce was in pain and a CAT scan in January 2014 revealed a monumental tumour that had spread all through his abdomen and up into his chest.

"The oncologist said 'This is massive. This is terminal. I'm sorry, you are going to die and you are going to die within the next few weeks or days'," Jenny said.

A couple of days before Royce died, he began coughing up a foul-smelling goo, like a "rotten liquid meat".

Royce and Jenny at their wedding. Photo: Supplied

Royce and Jenny at their wedding. Photo: Supplied

"Royce said to me 'It's like I'm drowning in a dead-sheep soup'," Jenny said.

"If he took a deep breath or spoke for too long he would bring up this foul-smelling putrid mass.

"He was just so stressed and he said to me 'Can you end it? Can you make it stop?'"

As a paramedic, Jenny said she had seen the choices other people made in similar situations. She said she encounters about half a dozen cases each year where people with a terminal illness take their own lives.

"Often it is lonely, painful, done violently and sometimes not very successfully," Jenny said.

"It is just horrible. At the end of your life you need to be surrounded by love and loved ones.

"I was brought up Catholic with the concept that every life was sacred. But I think you can still believe in the sanctity of life and understand and respect that when it has become intolerable people have the right to say 'I've had enough'."

Jenny sometimes suspects a family member has had a hand in helping a terminally-ill person to suicide.

It is a thought that crossed her mind when Royce asked her if she could "end it". She was forced to consider the heavy penalty for helping someone take their life and also the difficulty in finding the appropriate lethal dosage for a cancer patient with a high tolerance to painkillers.

"To get that amount of drug they will need to start hoarding – and people do that. I have seen it. But it also means that they don't treat their pain effectively and suffer more," Jenny said.

"So, yes, I thought about it.

"But no, I didn't act on that thought. I did what I could do to manage his pain and his horrible coughing, but I didn't take it a step further.

"At times I wish I did."

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