Rodney Hide: Focus on the big picture - a compassionate death

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Martin Hames. File photo / NZ Herald
Martin Hames. File photo / NZ Herald

I doubt my friend Martin Hames ever needed a decent pair of pyjamas. But 10 years ago, he went and bought himself a brand new pair.

Martin lived alone. He didn't own a TV. He didn't have a car. He was the shyest man I have ever met. I never knew him to have a girlfriend.

Martin worked with me in Parliament. He used to call me Boss even though I wasn't. It was his way of getting me to do things. He would say, "Focus on the big picture, Boss. Get stuck into government expenditure/apartheid/the-failing-school system." I almost always followed Martin's advice.

He had worked for the Reserve Bank then with Ruth Richardson when she was Minister of Finance. He wrote the brilliant book Winston First. That was about you-know-who. He wrote numerous policy papers and penned many speeches. He wrote a marvellous book titled The Crisis In New Zealand Schools.

Martin was wickedly funny and socially awkward. He didn't so much walk as jerk along. His arms often waved about uncontrollably.

I still laugh when I remember him throwing a cup of coffee over his shoulder. That was when our gorgeous press secretary told him he could slip sugar into her hot drink anytime he liked.

Martin's mother had died of Huntington's disease. Her truly dreadful death took years. In the final stages of Huntington's the mind loses its ability to control even the simplest movements - even swallowing is difficult and many sufferers die choking.

So, at 19 years old, Martin learned he had a 50 per cent chance of suffering the disease. He decided not to marry. Or have children. The risk was too great. And in his 40th year he got the fateful diagnosis.

We knew what he was planning. But the law forbade us helping or even knowing.

He put his affairs in order. On his own, one night at home, alone, he pinned a note to his new pyjama top: "Huntington's disease: Please Do Not Resuscitate". He attempted a massive overdose. But poor Martin. He didn't get all the pills down.

His neighbour found him. Martin regained consciousness in Wellington Hospital. The circulation had stopped to his legs and the doctors wanted to amputate.

Martin asked what would happen if they didn't cut his legs off. "You will die".

"Good," replied Martin, "I have Huntington's disease."

The doctors and nurses understood, wheeled him into intensive care. They gave him pain relief, looked after him. They were truly marvellous.

I dreaded going to see him. I needn't have. "I am having a great death, Boss. I am getting to say goodbye to my friends."

His characteristic shyness was gone. Why bother? It was his last day on this Earth.

Ruth Richardson shed a tear. "See," said Martin, "I always knew you were a big softie."

The young press sec kissed Martin and said, "See you round." Martin replied: "Maybe - it's taking me longer to die than they thought."

Martin Hames died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of the next morning. His dad was there. He died happy and he died content.

Martin had every right to take his own life. He also had every right to ask for help. But to give that help is against the law.

Martin feared he would slip into madness or lose control before he killed himself and be sentenced to years of suffering that would be hateful to him.

Maryan Street's End of Life Choice Bill, now before Parliament, would have enabled Martin to plan his death better. He would not have needed to rush to it.

He and I joked one last time. Then he was serious. He said if I wanted to do something in his memory it would be to change our law so no one else had to go through what he had had to go through. He said, "Boss, change it, change it for all the others."

I told him I would do my very best.

This column's not as good as you could write, Martin. But it's my best. And it's for you.

- Herald on Sunday

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