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The Exit Internationalist

July 16, 2018

David Goodall’s final hour: An appointment with death


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Foreign Correspondent joined Perth scientist David Goodall, 104, to record an intimate portrait of his final days as he crossed the globe to farewell family and campaign for his last rights.

Watch Foreign Correspondent HERE

In a spare one-bedroom apartment tucked behind a storage yard on the outskirts of a small town at the foot of the Swiss Alps, David Goodall lies on a single bed.

He is impatient to die.

He’s surrounded by three of his grandchildren, who’ve flown in from the US and France.

Down the corridor, there’s a posse of international media who’ve been following the story of the outspoken scientist since he arrived in Switzerland four days ago.

Fingers are poised to tweet news of the final moment.

Foreign Correspondent is the only Australian media here.

Inside the room, Dr Goodall is fumbling with a plastic contraption that will allow him to administer himself an intravenous dose of a lethal drug.

The valve is stiff and fiddly and at 104, he has poor eyesight and dexterity.

But under Swiss law, which allows a person to get help to die by suicide, Dr Goodall must operate the mechanism himself — without help from anyone.

If he can’t, his trip across the world will have been for nothing. He’ll have to return home to Australia.

“He couldn’t push the thing open and at that point we had been directed that no-one was allowed to say anything … we couldn’t help him,” Dr Goodall’s grandson Duncan Goodall says.

“His hand was shaking … David just wanted it over.”

Realising Dr Goodall can’t work the mechanism, lifecircle, the organisation which is assisting him to die by suicide, replaces it with another.

This time Dr Goodall succeeds: with characteristic determination, he manages to push the lever.

Why Dr Goodall went to Switzerland

Five weeks earlier in Perth, on his 104th birthday, David Goodall declares his intention to die.

He isn’t sick or in pain.

He’s simply had enough.

“I’m not happy, I want to die,” he tells Foreign Correspondent at the time, in his typically no-nonsense manner.

“Up until the age of 90 I was enjoying life. But not now.”

The internationally renowned plant scientist has never lived life in half measures.

After completing his PhD in London in the 1940s, he worked all over the world and married three times.

When he reached retirement age, Dr Goodall didn’t slow down.

Instead, he took on the job of editing a 38-volume series on the world’s ecosystems, a labour of over three decades.

Fiercely independent and energetic, Dr Goodall lived alone and commuted to work by public transport until the age of 102, when his university suggested he’d be safer working from home.

Dr Goodall didn’t go quietly.

After speaking out publicly, there was a backlash and the university found him an office closer to home.

In recent years, Dr Goodall’s mobility and eyesight had deteriorated.

After a fall at home earlier this year, he feared he’d be forced into a nursing home.

He attempted suicide.

“He’d always planned that at some point, if life was not worth living or there was not enough quality, that this is what he would do,” his daughter Karen Goodall-Smith says.

“But — that failed.”

A long-time member of Dr Philip Nitschke’s right-to-die advocacy organisation Exit International, Dr Goodall now contacted it for advice.

In 2015, the Medical Board of Australia restricted Dr Nitschke’s medical practice, banning him from giving advice on suicide.

His registration as a doctor ended in December 2015 and he now runs Exit International from the Netherlands.

With voluntary euthanasia and assisted dying currently illegal in Australia, Dr Nitschke suggested Dr Goodall travel to Switzerland for an assisted suicide.

“It’s a hell of a trip”, says Dr Nitschke, “and I thought he would just say, ‘No’ but he said, ‘Yes'”.

In the past seven years at least 15 Australians have exercised what’s become known as the “Swiss option”.

Passionate about the rights of the elderly to die at a time of their own choosing, Dr Goodall decided to use his last days to promote public debate.

“He could’ve excluded the media,” Duncan Goodall says.

“Instead he made a very difficult choice to bring everyone in … and change things for the better.”

Foreigners using the ‘Swiss option’

David Goodall is one of at least 21 Australians who have used Swiss laws to end their lives since 2010. More than 1,400 foreigners have used one of Switzerland’s biggest right-to-die organisations, Dignitas, in that time. Last year the number was 215.

*Another agency, lifecircle, says it assisted three Australians, including Dr Goodall, to commit suicide in the past seven years.

Before his appointment in Switzerland, Dr Goodall makes a final stopover to visit family in the wine-growing region of Bordeaux in south-west France.

It’s spring and the vines lining the hills are sprouting new leaves.

Sitting in the sunshine, Dr Goodall becomes animated as he feeds daughter-in-law Hana Goodall’s goats and horse.

His French family learned about his decision just a few weeks earlier and while they support it, it’s not easy.

“The first time it was a shock, a complete shock,” says his 30-year-old grandson Daniel, who has cooked his grandfather a delicious meal.

“But after second thoughts … I was happy for David. Still sad for myself, but happy for him.

“It will be a very strange experience, to have an appointment with death.”

Daniel Goodall and his sister Linda have decided to travel to Switzerland to be with their grandfather in his last days.

Daniel is apprehensive.

“It will be impossible to know how I’ll react when the moment arrives,” he says.

‘The Swiss Option’

In Switzerland, where he arrives a few days later, Dr Goodall’s story has been picked up by international media. Television crews and photographers descend on his hotel in the centre of town.

Behind the scenes, the Swiss organisation lifecircle organises two doctors to assess Dr Goodall’s state of mind.

The doctors must be sure he is capable of making this very final decision.

The final move

The airport gathering looks like a regular family farewell. But there will be no coming home. David Goodall is going to die.

Dr Goodall has come to Switzerland because its laws on assisted suicide are some of the most liberal in the world.

For more than 50 years, the Swiss Criminal Code has allowed for assisted suicide so long as the person helping does not have selfish motives.

And there are no residential restrictions, meaning foreigners can also get help to die.

It’s led to the phenomenon dubbed “suicide tourism”, with over 200 foreigners making a one-way trip to Switzerland each year.

Not all Swiss are happy about it.

Psychologist and city councillor, Annemarie Pfeifer, thinks it tarnishes Switzerland’s reputation.

“We are the pioneers of the Red Cross, who is all over the world and really helping people,” she says.

She fears assisted suicide laws undermine Red Cross values, which are about “helping people to live”.

With the number of Swiss seeking assisted suicide on the rise, she’s also concerned there’ll be pressure on old people who may feel their life is “no more valuable”.

In Basel, American grandson Duncan Goodall is also struggling with the idea of assisted suicide.

“I still have a visceral reaction to it when I think about it,” he says.
“Who wants to take their own life? Taking your own life just is repellent to me.”

Once Duncan discussed it with his grandfather, he was able to see it from his point of view.

“He was losing access to the things he really loved and so he was living a life for the sake of living and not to do what he really wanted to do,” he says.

“After I had a chance to think it through … I accepted it.”

On the afternoon before Dr Goodall’s death, Exit International organises a press conference, and it’s packed.

Wearing a jumper with the logo ‘Ageing Disgracefully’, Dr Goodall makes the most of his captive audience.

“I greatly regret that Australia is behind Switzerland,” he says.

At his age, he says, he should “be free to choose … the appropriate time” for his death.

The last day

On the morning of Dr Goodall’s death, it’s raining.

Gentle, soaking spring rain.

Dr Goodall is up early. His daughter Karen Goodall-Smith rings from Perth.

For the first time, her very rational and unemotional father tells her he loves her.

“To know he was going to die that day and that I was never going to talk to him again — it was really important for me to talk to him and to hear that,” she says.
Mid-morning, when Dr Goodall is wheeled into lifecircle’s rooms, the media is waiting.

For what seems an age, Dr Goodall and his grandchildren sit around a table, flanked by cameras, signing legal documents written in three languages.

He looks strained but is still razor sharp, quibbling with a document which refers to his illness.

“I’m not ill. I want to die,” he insists.

His grandchildren look shell-shocked.

Paperwork done, the media departs and Dr Goodall is finally able to lie down and administer himself the deadly dose.

But it’s not happening as quickly as he expected.

“He laid back and closed his eyes,” Duncan says.

“About 30 seconds later he opened his eyes and looked around and said, ‘Oh, it’s taking rather a long time’.”
Eventually, David Goodall takes his final breath.

In the aftermath of Dr Goodall’s death, Duncan is still coming to terms with what happened.

His emotions are raw and he’s struggling to reconcile life and death.

“You don’t know how to think about these things — you think that human life has such a high value and we should save it at all costs, but there are times when that isn’t actually the case,” he says.

But Duncan does take heart from his grandfather’s strength of purpose.

“He made his death have meaning. He saw this thing that he could do to help people that came after him … and I think that’s great.”

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