Dr. Death avoids suicide, chooses natural causes

by Jane Briggs-Bunting

Jack Kevorkian (aka Dr. Death) died early Friday in a Michigan hospital from complication of pulmonary thrombosis, not suicide. He was 83. He was frail and failing, weighing around 75 lbs.

It was breaking news on Detroit’s local TV stations and within minutes spread to the national media.

Physician-assisted suicide’s most prominent advocate died, in a hospital where he was being treated, of natural causes. Curious that. He was a long time proponent of the right to die and ended up doing prison time, eight years, when one of his patients decided he did not want to commit suicide in the middle of the procedure that Kevorkian, against his then-lawyer’s advice, was videotaping. Kevorkian gave the tape to CBS’s 60 Minutes, and the local prosecutor was finally successful in getting a conviction. In all, he helped 130 people to commit suicide.

The right to die is controversial in the U.S. though an accepted practice in the Netherlands and Belgium (the Swiss have a slightly different approach).  In part due to the publicity he courted, physician assisted suicide is now legal in Washington and Oregon and the high court in Montana ruled it legal, as well. Religious groups and a host of opponents call it murder and raise the issue of coercion, among others, not to mention it has long been a cultural taboo.

Yet, for our pets, we are free to make the always, for me, difficult decision to euthanize a beloved furred or feathered member of the family. Knowing intellectually and with advice from a caring veterinarian that “it is time” to end a pet’s suffering does not make the decision any less emotionally heart wrenching. I always hold them in my arms and let them know how much they are loved as they fall asleep forever.

It’s difficult to make the choice when it would be so much easier for me if they just died of natural causes. But death is rarely that convenient or easy either for pets or our loved ones. With the advances in modern medicine, even brain-dead people can be kept alive for months, even years.

Thank goodness for hospices and the angels that work there.

Jack moved the conversation on the right to die into the public eye by his actions and defiance and, just when his fame seemed to be fading, an HBO movie, “You Don’t Know Jack.” He had his quirks, and it was worrisome that his most frequent patients were women rather than men. Could it be that women are more concerned about being a burden to their loved ones? He also made his patients travel to him, sometimes thousands of miles from the comfort of their homes and loved ones, to obtain his services. He shunned planes and trains. His victims were often delivered in a van or a car to a local Michigan morgue or hospital emergency room.

His medical license was eventually revoked (he was a University of Michigan Medical School graduate), and I recall how he wandered the hallways of the Chemistry Department at local Oakland University at one point hoping to find a source of the chemicals he needed to continue his work. He didn’t.

He was unsuccessfully prosecuted several times, with the local prosecutor (of Armenian descent) going after the local pathologist (also of Armenian descent). I think Kevorkian was indignant about that. He lost when his high-profile lawyer quit over the videotaping.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by his lawyer. But I have to wonder as he neared his own death why he did not choose suicide.

2 replies »

  1. Probably he wasn’t in sufficient pain, and if he was probably he couldn’t find a doctor with the guts to do it.

    And clearly, whatever you think you think, you’re on one side of this question, or you wouldn’t use this wording: “His victims were often delivered in a van or a car to a local Michigan morgue or hospital emergency room.”

    Victims, eh?

    Friend of mine is currently considering this issue. He seems to think the “victim” should live, despite acknowledging he’d want to die if he were in her shoes, and despite her making her wishes entirely clear.

    But who cares what she thinks?

  2. Thanks for this balanced writing, with the interesting look at how it’s handled nationally and internationally and also in the context of pets. Dr. Jack certainly brought the conversation to the forefront for discussion, no matter how it all played out and how he went out.