Husband’s death prompts Sarah to support Dying with Dignity Bill

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CATHAOIRLEACH of Limerick’s Metropolitan District, Cllr Sarah Kiely has rowed in behind health campaigner Vicky Phelan to support the Dying With Dignity Bill.

Cllr Kiely’s husband and partner of 21-years, Damien O’Shaughnessy, lost his battle with cancer in October 2018 and since being elected a Fine Gael councillor in 2019, the Janesboro woman has spoken out about her loss to help others struggling with bereavement.

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The Dying with Dignity Bill came to her attention when she saw Vicky Phelan advocating for it. She believes society owes Ms Phelan a huge debt of gratitude for what she has done and also agrees that she has the right to die with dignity at a time of her choosing.

Cllr Kiely told the Limerick Post this week why she is supporting the Bill.

“In 2017 I had the most wonderful life, not perfect because that doesn’t exist, just wonderful. I was married to Damien. We had two children, Emily and Tiernan. Both of us had jobs we loved. We had a mortgage we could manage after being in financial difficulties like many others during the recession and were grateful to be back on track,” she explained.

“Our children were growing fast and we looked forward to having time together and having adventures we didn’t have when we were younger as we chose to have kids when I was 21-years-old and Damien was 24.

“Towards the end of 2017, things took a sinister cruel twist. Damien became unwell, and before long  we were sitting in a hospital with a raft of tests and procedures for the coming weeks and months.

“On St Stephen’s Day 2017, we travelled to St Vincent’s Hospital where a biopsy was performed on Damien. We knew then we were in trouble.

“On January 3,  2018 we went back to get the results. I will never forget that day. We were so nervous. We knew this was life changing, it didn’t feel real. It was like watching someone else’s life. Things like this can’t happen to people like us, can it?

“Yes it can and it does, every day in every hospital across the country.

“As we sat in the waiting room we spoke about the need to do what was required to get better. We met with the consultant –  ‘the results of the biopsy are back and you have cancer’, he said. Our world shattered right there. I cried and looked at Damien. He was shaking. We held hands. His hands were cold. We just cried.”

Cllr Kiely has high praise for the consultants and clinical nurse specialists at St Vincent’s Hospital, who spoke to her and her husband about the plans for treatment and how this could be curative.

“We were full of hope at that stage. Chemotherapy then surgery that was the plan. We accepted that. On the way home, we spoke about how we were going to tell the kids. A cancer nurse told us not to deliver bad news in the evening time especially to children. ‘Wait until morning’, she told us. So we did.

“In the coming weeks and months, life was tough on all of us. We still stayed hopeful and spoke about everything including death, funeral, who was to be in the room at the end, and we mostly spoke about dignity.”

Dignity was the overarching concern for 45-year-old Damien, who had been fit and healthy until this diagnosis.

“He was very clear about what he wanted and what he didn’t want especially when he couldn’t speak for himself. Pain was a big issue.

At a later point, he asked the consultant  ‘will I be in pain at the end?’

“Is this what we were facing, a painful death?  We can’t let this happen.

“We had to dip in and out of this conversation. It usually took place in the morning to ‘get it over with’ and, looking back, Damien was so thoughtful in all of them. We cried so much at one point he said ‘that’s it. I’m not crying anymore’. We both laughed. We agreed to just cry in the morning and then make the best of the day.

‘Any day you can put you feet on the ground is a good day’, he said.”

In May 2018 Damien had a liver resection. He spent ten weeks in St Vincent’s Hospital and was seriously ill.
“He went through so much at that time including sepsis and pulmonary edema as well as TPN feeding which he hated. I stayed in a B&B from Monday to Friday near the hospital and went home at weekends to see the kids. We hated not being together. It was very difficult to leave Damien even for two days. It was also difficult to leave the kids every Sunday for the week,” Cllr Kiely recalls.

On August 29, 2018, Damien and Sarah went back to see the consultant.

“The cancer was back. We knew for lots of reasons I won’t go into. We could see it and feel it.

“‘I don’t know how much more of this I can take Sarah’, Damien said. My heart was shattered and so was his.
“Damien died in Milford Hospice on October 13, 2018 after a traumatic week. We had 21 years together and I am grateful for that.”
Looking back, Cllr Kiely feels the last few weeks of Damien’s life were not what they should have been. Given the choice, she is sure her husband would have chosen to end it differently.
“The key words in this debate are choice and dignity. How can we take choice away when faced with such pain and suffering?” she asks.

The Dying with Dignity Bill would make provision to give to a person the legal and medical right of the authorisation of voluntary assisted dying where that person is suffering from a terminal illness. It would give a medical practitioner the legal right to provide the assistance to a qualifying person to end their life in accordance with the terms set out in the Act.

Cllr Kiely admits that the Bill in its current draft form isn’t perfect and needs a lot of work.

“Let’s do the work. Let’s get a cross party committee together and stop the suffering. This is so important in a progressive society where we value life but also value choice and dignity.

”As someone who was elected to Limerick City and County Council in 2019 I feel it my duty to speak about our story and use my platform within Fine Gael to ask my colleagues to be brave and have a free vote on this issue.

”I understand this is a vote of conscience and that is why I’m asking the party to allow a free vote on the matter. I agree the Bill as it stands needs to be amended to safeguard vulnerable people and address other aspects.

“I don’t have the expertise to do this, however there are people in our party and in other parties who can work on these issues to make the Bill acceptable and more importantly passable in the Dail,” she concluded.