Jack Kevorkian, "Doctor Death"


"Dying is not a crime," preached by Jack Kevorkian, was not only a defense for the work he dedicated his life to, but a declaration of battle that pro-euthanasia supporters would, to this very day, cry out to those who oppose their views. "Doctor Death," as the media would label him, was a pathologist and one of the most notable voices for promoting rights for terminal patients. Dr. Kevorkian dedicated himself to sharing knowledge with the world that terminal patients have the right to die with dignity - via doctor-assisted suicide - and that there is no shame in helping his patients end their lives peacefully, surrounded by their loved ones as opposed to days, weeks, or even months of agony and suffering. Armed with this belief, Dr. Kevorkian estimated that he assisted at least 130 patients with ending their life on their own terms, instead of letting them suffer and wither away in a hospital bed.

While working as a pathologist at Pontiac General Hospital, Dr. Kevorkian began to experiment with blood transfusions. But not your typical blood transfusions - he was interested in extracting blood from the recently deceased and transferring it into the body of hospital staff members (and he was successful!). Kevorkian believed this would be a useful tool for the U.S. military to utilize for wounded soldiers on the battlefield, but the Pentagon was not interested in his findings. In 1987, Dr. Kevorkian began to put himself out there as a "death consultant," and three years later, his first public doctor-assisted suicide was performed on a 54 year old woman who was diagnosed with Alzheimer a year earlier. The charges brought upon Jack Kevorkian were dropped later that year, since there were no laws in Michigan regarding doctor-assisted suicide, at the time at least. It wasn't long before the State of Michigan revoked Dr. Kevorkian's medical license, however. He was told that in response to his actions of euthanasia, he was no longer allowed to practice medicine or to work on patients. Dr. Kevorkian believed in his work, however, and went on to continue helping patients bring their lives to an end, peacefully and on their own terms.

Opponents of Dr. Kevorkian and his work claimed that "Doctor Death" was murdering these people, and that their deaths were at his hands. However, in the deaths of the 130 people that Dr. Kevorkian assisted, Jack himself only assisted in the deaths by helping to attach an euthanasia device that he had created to the patient. The patients themselves were the ones to take the final action to peacefully end their lives. The devices - the Thanatron and the Mercitron - had a button that the patient would push themselves, and the button would help administer the drugs or chemicals that would ultimately end their life. The Thanatron, invented by Kevorkian, would deliver saline, a sleep inducer called sodium thiopental, and a lethal mixture of potassium chloride (which would stop their heart) and pancuronium bromide (to prevent spasms) to the patient. The Mercitron was a gas mask that the patient would wear, which would be filled with carbon monoxide. But for both devices, Dr. Kevorkian was only there to help assist the patient with getting the actual process - it would be up to the patient to willing push the button or turning the valve to begin the process.

As you could imagine, not everyone in this world shares the same views on right-to-die as Dr. Kevorkian and his supporters do. He was taken to trial four times between 1994 and 1997 for performing doctor-assisted suicide; for three of the trials, Dr. Kevorkian was acquitted of the charges, and the fourth was declared a mistrial. The trials, however, helped to bring the topic of euthanasia to the public spotlight, which was huge because it finally got people talking about the taboo topic of doctor-assisted suicide. The trials helped bring a lot of support to Dr. Kevorkian and his cause. But on November 22, 1998, a videotape produced by Dr. Kevorkian showed the voluntary euthanasia of a man who was in the final stages of Lou Gehrig's disease. However this time, the process was done differently - it was Dr. Kevorkian who administrated the lethal injection into the patient, instead of the patient doing it themselves. Dr. Kevorkian went on to dare the authorities to stop him from performing doctor-assisted suicides, confident he was doing the right thing by helping suffering patients bring a graceful end to their suffering. For what its worth, the family of the man who was assisted by Jack in the video went on to describe the lethal injection delivered to their family member as humane, not murder, and they supported Dr. Kevorkian in his work.

In March of 1999, authorities charged Dr. Kevorkian for the death of the man in the tape, and he was charged with second degree murder, as well as the delivery of a controlled substance (which he got in trouble for since his medical license was suspended previously in the state of Michigan). After just two days, Dr. Kevorkian was found guilty of second degree murder, and was sentenced to serve 10-25 years in prison. He went on to serve his sentence, getting denied parole in 2005 - but he was released from prison on June 1, 2007 for good behavior after spending eight years and two and a half months in prison. Upon his release, Dr. Kevorkian said he would no longer be practicing doctor-assisted suicide, and that in the years he had left in him, he would be a voice for the euthanasia cause. He wanted to help states change their laws regarding doctor-assisted suicide.

And it was a promise he would keep until his death. In the years that followed his release from prison, Dr. Kevorkian gave lectures and interviews on a range of topics, not just doctor-assisted suicide. Just before his death, a made-for-tv film called "You Don't Know Jack" was released to help tell the story Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his mission to bring right-to-die to life for his patients. In May of 2011, Kevorkian was brought into the hospital for kidney problems and pneumonia, and as his condition rapidly grew worse, he passed away from a blood clot on June 3, 2011 at the age of 83.

Regardless of your own personal beliefs regarding right-to-die and doctor-assisted suicide, it is hard to ignore the impacts Dr. Kevorkian's life work has made on our world's history. The ripples he made created waves, and the waves ended up getting the rest of the world talking about the ethics in doctor-assisted suicide. It is a debate that some will argue there is no easy answer to, yet it is one that is continually earning support of people around the world. As it stands right now, there are five states in the United States, as well as Washington D.C., that have death with dignity statues: California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Programs have been put in place by the states that ensure that doctor-assisted suicide is not a "spur of the moment" decision, and that the patient is mentally sound while making the decision to end their life. There are groups all around the world that are working hard to continue to raise awareness for euthanasia, and to help deliver changes to the laws to bring doctor-assisted suicide to life - hard work that would surely make Dr. Jack Kevorkian proud.


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