‘We’re really grateful’: Family’s thanks for South Australia’s VAD laws

After having fish and chips at the beach, Lynne Wong was able to end her life with “dignity, peace and joy”. She was one of 110 terminally ill patients to access voluntary assisted dying in its inaugural year in South Australia.

Feb 01, 2024, updated Feb 05, 2024
Lynne Wong, who passed away in June 2023 after accessing South Australia's voluntary assisted dying services. Photo: supplied

Lynne Wong, who passed away in June 2023 after accessing South Australia's voluntary assisted dying services. Photo: supplied

Lynne’s daughter, Jasmin, told reporters today that her mother was a stoic, humorous person who had always expressed a desire to go down the voluntary assisted dying (VAD) pathway if it became available.

Lynne, a former medical receptionist, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. In 2014, it was discovered the cancer had metastasized to her lungs and bones. She was given five years to live.

Jasmin said her family did not expect Lynne to live long enough to access VAD, which was legalised by the South Australian parliament in June 2021 after 16 failed attempts over 25 years.

The legislation came into effect on January 31, 2023. In the year since, 195 terminally ill people have been issued with a VAD permit, and 110 have died after administration of a VAD substance.

Lynne passed away in June last year, aged 73, around four weeks after being issued a permit. Jasmin said her mother was “ecstatic” and “really grateful” when her VAD application was successful.

“She was always very humorous, liked to share a joke, was very pragmatic about how she wanted her life to end,” Jasmin said.

“She was able to plan her funeral, which is something that sort of took that out of our hands, and [she] was able to bring joy to us over the 14 years of her illness.

“She always acted with grace and dignity, so it was nice that the end of her life was no different to how she lived her life.”

Chris Picton, Melanie Turner and Jasmin Wong

Health Minister Chris Picton, VAD review board presiding member Melanie Turner and Jasmin Wong (right) at a press conference today. Photo: Thomas Kelsall/InDaily

Jasmin said her mum set a date for when she wanted to take the VAD substance, and they spent the last weeks of her life ticking off things she wanted to do.

“We’re so lucky to have been able to spend Mum’s final moments ticking off some of the things that she wanted to do, like fish and chips down at the beach,” she said.

“Another one was eating lobster, another one was just simply having a coffee together and also going through some of our photo books from the travels that we’ve been on together.

“But as the date that we set approached, we worked with the care navigator team to make those final moments as comfortable for Mum as possible.

“Those moments even though we would have liked them to have lasted much longer, we’re very grateful that Mum was able to end her life with dignity, peace and joy.”

Jasmin said her father, brother and two care navigators were present on Lynne’s final day.

“It was very peaceful,” she said.

“We played some music. We spoke about how we’re just so thankful to have spent time with Mum and just really grateful that she was at peace with the decision and that made us feel more at peace with the decision as well.”

According to government statistics released today, 75 per cent of those who applied for VAD in South Australia were aged 65 years and over, and 77 per cent were receiving palliative care.

Sixty-eight per cent were from metropolitan Adelaide and 32 per cent from regional SA.

Of the 195 people to be issued a VAD permit, 110 died after being administered a VAD substance and a further 30 died without taking up the option.

Health Minister Chris Picton said it was important that some people be granted the option to access VAD, even if they don’t use it.

“It means that those people have had that choice, have had that dignity,” Picton said.

“And for many people, it gives them a comfort and a peace of mind that it is available to them if they want it, even if they choose not to do so.”

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No plans to change eligibility criteria

Picton also said the state government has no plans to expand the eligibility criteria for VAD services.

Currently, VAD can only be accessed by patients with an incurable, advanced and progressive disease expected to cause death within six months, or 12 months for a neurodegenerative condition.

“We have no plans for changes to legislation at this time,” Picton said, adding that the VAD review continues to advise the government on  administration of the system.

“We’re also learning between the states in terms of the rollout of this program, and keeping that communication between states to see if there are particular changes that should be made.

“But we don’t have any proposals in terms of… changing the eligibility criteria at this stage.”

Govt pushes for change to federal telehealth ruling

Picton said the state government is also pushing the federal government to address a Federal Court ruling that effectively criminalises doctors for doing telehealth consultations about VAD.

The November 2023 ruling found that the definition of VAD is the same as suicide under the Commonwealth’s criminal code – meaning doctors who consult about VAD over the phone or email risk criminal prosecution.

Picton said SA Health has been “limited” in its use of telehealth in the provision of VAD services.

“We want to see change from the federal government in terms of that provision for telehealth – we’re very clear about that,” he said.

“We think that it will improve people’s access to this service right across the state.

“This is particularly a critical issue for people in remote areas of our state that they’ll be able to get faster access if that law can be changed.

“We’re hopeful that that will get due consideration by the federal government.”

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