Terminally ill doctor pens letter to his colleagues in support of assisted dying


Dr Ian McPhee, anaesthetist and clinical senior lecturer at Sydney Medical School, was diagnosed at age 59 with stage four Sezary syndrome, a rare form of cancer. He underwent several rounds of treatment, including a bone marrow transplant, and at one point suffered multiple organ failure. Half of all patients die within five years of diagnosis of Sezary Syndrome. For Dr McPhee, the prognosis may be worse, given the advanced stage of the disease.

In March 2017, 62-year-old McPhee, contacted Dr Rodney Syme (Vice President of Dying With Dignity Victoria) who “provisionally” agreed to provide Nembutal to Dr McPhee to use if he decides to end his life. Provision of the drug is a legal grey area and Dr McPhee’s wife and four adult children, who support his decision, may face police questioning in the aftermath. Dr Syme told Fairfax Media that Dr McPhee is a suitable patient for this assistance because “he faces an appalling death”.

In October 2017, Dr Phee allowed Dying with Dignity NSW to interview him about voluntary assisted dying and video his responses. At that time, Dr McPhee said the passage of the NSW Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill was significant for someone in his situation, as he would then have the option of engaging with his local GP and dying at the time of his choice in the community he has lived in for 25 years.

Immediately after the NSW Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill failed to pass through the NSW Upper House, Dr Phee penned a very powerful ‘letter to my colleagues on the Norther Rivers General Practice Network.

...I had accepted not just the diagnosis, but the reality of limited life expectancy. Bound up with this was the knowledge that death will be preceded most likely by sepsis and multiple organ failure.......... A career in critical care and acute pain had shaped my own views long before the events of the last few years. I will have the choice to be assisted to die.......... real-world experience demonstrates that laws can be enacted to ensure that those few who are unable to be relieved of physical, and or existential suffering in the face of an imminent death, can take their own lives with medical assistance........... Despite the best efforts of a small, unrepresentative cadre of prominent clinicians, it is clear that a majority agree with the view that the matter of legislation to allow Voluntary Assisted Dying is ultimately a matter for society and Government.

Click for Sydney Morning Herald article 2 September 2017 ‘From doctor to patient, why Ian McPhee secured his ‘great comfort’

Click for Ballina Shire Advocate article 12 September 2017 ‘Anaesthetist calls for right to put himself out of pain’

Click for extracts from ABC Lateline program and transcript 25 July 2017 ‘From doctor to patient: How a medical professional faces a terminal illness’

Click for Sydney Morning Herald article by Dr Ian McPhee 2 February 2016 ‘Assisted dying: the difficult conversation we need to have’