'How I helped my friend to die'

Sean Davison doesn’t want to be a martyr. He doesn’t really want anyone to know who he is. But he does want people to know what he did, why he did it, and why he doesn’t regret it.

In November 2013, Davison helped Dr. Anrich Burger to end his life. Burger, who worked as Health24’s CyberDoc, had been left a quadriplegic after a motor accident in 2005. His disability had forced him to stop practising as a doctor and deprived him of the highly active life he had led, and loved, before the accident.

He was unable to move any part of his body below the neck, where the fracture had occurred, but his suffering didn’t end there.

For the final few years of his life, Dr. Burger had also suffered several complications from his injury, including severe neuropathic pain which often left him unable to attend to his forums, something which stressed him deeply.

Neuropathic pain results from damage to the nerves themselves, and can be deeply uncomfortable and unrelenting. It was too much, and in an interview with YOU magazine, Dr. Burger stated clearly and publicly that he wanted to die.

Watch: Don't judge me, Founder of Dignity SA on helping SA doctor to die.

In 2012, Dr. Burger made contact with Davison, Professor of Biotechnology at University of Western Cape. Prof. Davison had shot to infamy in 2006 when he helped his ailing mother to die in New Zealand.

Due to an absence of laws recognising assisted dying, he was found guilty of assisted suicide and sentenced to five months under house arrest, a relatively lenient sentence. 

His mother, a retired general practitioner and psychiatrist who was terminally ill with cancer, had already tried to end her own life by going on a hunger strike, but she simply made herself more unwell, prompting Davison to take action by giving her a lethal dose of morphine.

ImageFriends and supporters with Sean outside the high court during his trial in NZ. From Dignitysa.org

Friends and supporters with Sean Davison outside the high court during his trial in New Zealand

Read: SA Doctor banned for assisting suicide of his father

Back in SA, Burger and Davison formed a close friendship. Both scientists, they knew that Burger’s condition offered little chance of improvement. Davison describes himself as an extreme empath, and while he couldn’t understand what life was like for Burger, he was acutely aware of the pain and sadness that the doctor was experiencing every day.

After some time, Burger, who, though in constant pain but not terminally ill, broached the topic of whether Davison would help him die, like he had with his mother, who had also been a doctor.  Davison agreed, certain that it was what Burger truly, clearly wanted.

It should be emphasised that neither party came to the decision quickly or lightly and many months passed until that final day in November. Their pact only served to further the strengthen the bond between these two friends, and it became clear that Burger's biggest fear was something happening to Davison, leaving him trapped. 

Watch our exclusive interview with Prof. Sean Davison below, and see more here.

Davison is keen to make the distinction that while most terminally-ill patients are capable of killing themselves in many ways, quadriplegics, due to their disability, are not.  Anrich Burger could in all likelihood have lived for another 30 years with his disability, a prospect that he could not deal with.

After Davison's speech at the World Federation of Right to Die Societies' annual conference in Chicago, United States he said "Not all quadriplegics want to die, but those who do want to, should have the option.”

Aside from Davison, Burger could have achieved his aim at Dignitas, the famed accompanied suicide organisation in Switzerland. However, Davison stated that the logistics of this enterprise made it wholly unappealing. A date for Burger’s death would have to be set months in advance, an ominous proposition that did not sit well with the doctor.

With Davison’s assistance, Burger could decide a couple of days in advance. Being a doctor, he had access to the medication required (Phenobarbitol) and acquired it himself from a pharmacy. Phenobarbitol (phenobarbitone) is a strong barbiturate also used as an anticonvulsant and sedative.

Read: Former nurse convicted of assisting suicides

On his final day alive, Burger checked into an as-yet-unnamed waterfront hotel. Davison was there and he recalls that they spoke together for several hours across a range of topics, enjoying the view across the ocean, something Burger had always loved.

Davison says there were no doubts, no second thoughts. In fact, the only thing that Burger was afraid of was not dying. He made Davison promise to be completely sure that Burger was dead before he left.

Then, Burger took the huge dose of Phenobarbitol. Within minutes he was asleep and not long afterwards his heart peacefully, and painlessly, stopped beating.

Burger had taught Davison how to accurately take someone’s pulse, and warned him that following a large dose of a sedative, as he would be taking, the heart could slow drastically without actually stopping.

Davison followed through on his promise and only left when he was certain his friend had actually passed away. Once some distance away, he called the hotel to inform them that somebody had died in the room. He didn't want a poor, unsuspecting cleaner to stumble across the body the following morning. Both men wanted it to be a dignified end.

Davison says he was sad to lose a friend, but he felt no regrets and, mainly, that he was relieved that Anrich's suffering was over.

Watch: Davison describes the day he helped the doctor die

According to Davison, only two people knew Burger’s plan. Davison and Burger himself. Burger’s fiancé was not informed of his plan as she does not support assisted dying.

What lies ahead is unclear. While Davison admits that what happened was, at best, legally contentious, one would think that if he was to be arrested, it would have happened by now.

By declining to do so, the South African authorities may have given another signal that they are unwilling to prosecute those who help others to willingly end their lives.

Read more:

SA doctors "secretly help people die" 
Dealing with death 
Preparing for a dignified death

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