Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous "Doctor Death," was a champion and a symbol of end of life empowerment to some and a murderer in the eyes of others. But for many of us who have seen a loved one die a long and painful death before our eyes, he was a hero.
Friday, at the age of 83, the good doctor himself died of natural (not assisted) causes.
Kevorkian became infamous over the years for advocating for assisted suicide and went to jail for assisting them. He spent eight years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder for helping more than 100 terminally ill patients end their lives and was released only on the condition that he would never assist another death.
It's true. Doctors do take an oath to do no harm, but as someone who watched a person close to me die in my home of cancer (my mother), I would never blame anyone for wanting to end their suffering and die with dignity.
Kevorkian was unafraid to break the taboo and to TRULY help his patients, not just watch them die slowly and painfully, unable to walk or talk, just shaking and not even knowing their family members by name at the end.
His courage has affected change all over the country. Hospice care with its palliative support and gentle philosophy has taken off. Physicians have become more sympathetic to their pain and more willing to prescribe medication to relieve it.
Now Oregon, Washington, and Montana allow medically supervised suicides and more states will likely follow. A person close to my family chose this way last year when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and her life ended peacefully amidst friends and laughter and love. She was able to say her goodbyes peacefully and leave the Earth on her terms without the indignities so many people will face in death.
If we have to go, why not do it beautifully, the way we want to go?
Kevorkian was a bit flashy for my personal taste. He flew in the face of medicine, decrying their “hypocritic oafs" and sought fame for his acts. The American Medical Association called him “a reckless instrument of death” who “poses a great threat to the public.”
And yet, it was precisely those tactics that enacted change. In this culture, we are all so afraid of death and dying that we hide it away. It's just as valid a part of the life cycle as birth, and yet one we celebrate with great fanfare and one we awkwardly pretend doesn't exist until we can hide away from the person experiencing it.
Death isn't something to hide from. And maybe if we had more choices and had the luxury to choose our times, we would be less afraid. No one would advocate for suicides when a person is young and vital, but terminal illness can be very ugly. I watched my mother decline from a woman who swam four miles a day, practiced two hours of yoga daily, and once trekked in the Andes for weeks on end become a woman who couldn't even take three steps on her own and whose mouth was full of sores from chemotherapy. She chose to ride it out on her own until the end came naturally, but I wouldn't have blamed her a bit if she had decided to end it on her own terms before it got so painful and ugly.
Kevorkian allowed his patients to decide how far down that road they were willing to go and then exit the world the way they wanted. No other doctor has championed his patients more than Kevorkian. Dying with dignity is a right we should all have.
The fact is, there are people living in misery and pain who have terminal diagnoses and would prefer to be dead. If they are not harming anyone else, why would we stop them? If we let our own fears about the unknown stop us from truly helping others, then we are no champions of life. We are just fear mongers terrified of what comes after this life.
Kevorkian was not. And his passion and his courage and his true love of his patients make him one of the more heroic doctors in modern times. No matter what the medical establishment has to say about that.
Do you think Dr. Kevorkian was bad?
Image via RecordRat/Flickr