WARNING: Disturbing content
At just 19 years old, Rhys Habermann sat down with his mother and had a conversation they never thought possible.
The South Australian teenager had decided to end his life.
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Habermann had been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma two years previously – a rare and aggressive type of bone cancer.
“I never thought I would ever find myself in a situation like this,” Rhys’ mother Liz told 7NEWS.com.au.
“But sometimes life throws things at you and you just have to deal with them.”
When Rhys turned 18, he decided to stop chemotherapy.
The cancer killed him, but the chemo made him worse.
On his last birthday, Rhys received the devastating news that his cancer had spread.
“To be told straight out that it was fatal … it’s not just life changing, it’s more … you don’t know where to go and it makes you feel very alone,” Liz said.
“We were told the cancer had spread and was everywhere. It was just absolutely heartbreaking.
He was advised to have further treatment to relieve some of his pain, but decided against it.
He had made it clear to his parents that if the pain became too much for him, he would end his life.
“He didn’t want to be in a coma,” Liz said.
Rhys’ condition got so bad that one day Liz said she had just gone for a walk when Rhys called and said he couldn’t get up.
“He couldn’t move, so we took him to the hospital and they found a tumor on his spine,” Liz said.
When Rhys got back from the hospital he told his mother it was time.
“He’s had enough,” Liz said.
“So the kids came over to see him and he invited some friends over to hang out with him.”
That same weekend in January 2017, Rhys committed suicide at home with his parents.
Liz said she tried to be there for Rhys as much as possible during this time and to give him the best possible support.
However, she says that Rhys ended up teaching her so much that Liz set out to advocate for voluntary euthanasia.
“He taught me so much in such a short amount of time,” she said.
“He taught me all about compassion and understanding.
“What this disease does is just awful, and unless you’re affected by it, you can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like.”
“We need to talk about it”
South Australia’s voluntary euthanasia legislation was passed in 2021 after 16 attempts to get legislation through Parliament over more than 25 years.
The euthanasia system requires those wishing to die to have been resident in South Australia for at least 12 months.
In order for a patient to participate in the procedure, a terminal diagnosis and a life expectancy of less than six months or twelve months for a person with a neurodegenerative disease must be confirmed.
The draft law also stipulates that patients must prove that they have the capacity to make decisions and give consent and undergo an assessment by two independent doctors.
In January 2023, voluntary euthanasia was finally legalized.
But that was never an option for Rhys.
“People don’t like to talk about death and dying, but we have to,” Liz said.
“We have to be compassionate, it should be a choice and most people won’t use it, but if we can just help one person not to suffer then our job is done.”
Liz explained that young people who are suffering like her son need much more support and understanding.
“Parents don’t want to give up on their children, but when they’re suffering so much, you have to deal with it kindly and compassionately,” she said.
“It doesn’t mean they suffer less because they’re younger.
“Treatment can be almost as terrible as the disease, which is why some people stop treating their children.
“And people who aren’t in that situation are very biased, and it’s like it’s not your life, it’s not yours to take.
Meanwhile, Liz continues to advocate for better understanding and discussion around the complex issue of voluntary euthanasia.
Although it is now legal in their state, this does not apply to all of Australia and is only available to those who meet certain criteria.
Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland, NSW, Tasmania and South Australia have all enacted their own laws to allow the practice.
However, the ACT is expected to introduce its bill to the ACT Legislative Assembly in the second half of 2023, while the NT has yet to announce its plans.
Meanwhile, Liz said she thinks Rhys would be so proud to have his story used as a voice for change in Australia.
“If I could have him back I would do it in a heartbeat, but that’s the next best thing for people to still be able to say his name and for him to leave such a big legacy,” she said.
“Rhy’s death was not in vain and he would be so proud.
“He would be happy that his story helps people understand that VAD is a kinder and more compassionate way to die.”
If you need help during a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For more information on depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or speak to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.