In my opinion, Jack Kevorkian was an awful guy. Despicable. Why? Because his clown-like shenanigans set back the discussion of assisted dying by a decade.
From 1990 to 1998, Kevorkian, a pathologist, assisted in more than 100 suicides, claiming to be a “good Samaritan.” The last one got him convicted for second-degree murder. What could have been a robust national discussion about the issue of terminally ill patients turned into a spectacle.
A recent article in the British Medical Journal has convinced me we need to have this discussion again.
Now first off, I have strong feelings about cases of terminal illness. If you can get a gun to kill yourself, why can’t you get pills? In the United Kingdom, about 80 percent of people support a law allowing doctors to prescribe terminal drugs, while about one in four Americans and Canadians support this. Twenty years ago, the state of Oregon enacted the Death with Dignity Act allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal drugs, old-fashioned barbiturate sleeping pills such as secobarbital, expressly prescribed by doctors for that purpose. In 2016, 204 patients were prescribed these drugs with 133 taking them. All had terminal illnesses. All were going to die from their disease.
A few weeks ago, I visited an old college friend of mine. Her brother was one of those super scary-smart guys. Got a perfect score on the SAT. Got into every college where he ever applied. Got a psychology Ph.D., and a few years later decided he wanted to become a psychiatrist. So he finished medical school in three years, then jumped into a position at a high-powered East Coast Ivy League hospital.
But then something hit. He started to become a bit distant, apathetic. He started making mistakes — verbal flaws, memory flaws. One day he got lost coming home. It turned out he had Huntington’s disease. The great American singer Woody Guthrie had it. It’s an awful, fateful, terminal disease.
As Huntington’s takes its course, the personality changes — it happened with my friend’s brother. He would become angry for no reason, screaming. This loving, kind person was becoming a monster, as his wife put it.
He wanted to die with dignity. He knew what was happening. There was no escape. He didn’t want to continue down that road. But there was nothing he could do about it. He lived in an East Coast state that had guns but no drugs that were legally available for such cases.
So what did he do? He pulled his family together, giving them hugs, and he started fasting. He told them he wasn’t going to blow his head off but instead he would fast. Stop eating. Stop drinking. It took two weeks before he passed.
At the end, they called in hospice, wonderful folks, who gave him morphine when he was suffering but only in the dosage guidelines from the state medical society. Not enough to kill, just enough to take the edge off of dying. It wasn’t a violent death but it wasn’t a dignified way to go.
This gentle soul suffered more than he should have. And let us not forget how much the family suffered seeing him die. Those memories will linger with them forever.
My spin: It’s my humble opinion that this wonderful person should have had the option to take pills. If you can buy a gun, jump off a bridge or hang yourself, why can’t someone who is terminally ill take pills themselves and just fall asleep?
It’s time for us to have a serious and necessary discussion about this issue, rather than just shoving this under the rug and waiting for some future generation to take action. Stay well.