On a controversial topic

Dr. Kevorkian is dead, at the age of 83.

Let’s talk about a hard topic once again, ladies and gentlemen, and let’s talk about death.

When Dr. Kevorkian was arrested and tried, I was still a kid, but as I entered the criminal justice studies as a lass of 18, I began reading up about the case. Especially after the knock-down, drag-out battle over Terri Schiavo, the topic of death, and choosing one’s own, is a very, very touchy subject. In fact, it’s a subject that people seldom confront.

Let’s make one thing clear: this is mostly about consent to death and choice thereof. The key concepts here are consent and choice. Also, there is a lot to be said about dignity; I am sure that the elderly people don’t see senility as dignifying in any way, and I certainly wouldn’t expect that they would choose a natural death, if it means a complete loss of their physical and mental faculties.

But I digress. Let’s talk about the doctors first, and let’s talk about Dr. K.

Let’s not confuse Dr. Kevorkian with what’s known as an Angel of Mercy killer. For you non-criminology people, an AoM is a medical professional, be it a doctor, nurse, orderly, or pharmacist, who kills their own patients. The majority of AoM killers do so for their own personal gain. I did not see any evidence in the Kevorkian case that he killed for any gain to himself.

I’ll now point out a very unsettling fact: most hospitals will likely never know that they have an Angel of Mercy among themselves until and unless someone gets suspicious. And even then, bear in mind that the person perpetrating is trained in body functions, and knows enough about the drugs that are accessible to them to make the killing virtually undetectable. As a criminal justice grad, and as someone with a very deep love of forensic science, I can tell you: tracing these killings, and pinpointing a serial killer in these situations is extremely difficult. Harold Shipman is a classic example of an AoM killer, and he almost got away with over two hundred murders. And know this: had Shipman not gotten greedy and had the patients change their wills to make him sole beneficiary before their deaths, he would’ve likely continued killing until his retirement, undetected.

Death is never, ever a pleasant subject to discuss in any capacity, especially end-of-life care. You may remember the crap that Obama got over the healthcare act, with Sarah Palin claiming that this means that there will be “death panels” to decide what to do with your elderly loved one. Naturally and as ever, Sarah Palin got proved to be full of it. However, this really put an interesting topic to light, and that is end-of-life planning. And no one, no one wants to admit that one of those days, they will be dying, and they may want to think that at the end of their lives, they will not be able to take care of themselves.

So many people blithely believe that their children will take care of them when they’re old. That’s a fallacy on many levels, and if you ever venture into a nursing home, you will find that the first complaint is, “My kids don’t see me anymore!” So what happens when you don’t have anyone? Assisted living. Sometimes a nursing home. No one ever pictures themselves unable to literally sit upright, never mind move around on their own. This is where dignity comes into play, and no matter how religions may decry pride as a deadly sin, you cannot shake it as a part of human nature. For aeons, we’ve been groomed as people to put our best foot forward, even when we are at less than our best in every other way, and this grooming echoes very much into our everyday lives. We don’t want people around us to see us when we’re sick. We don’t want people to see when we have something wrong in our lives. No one does. It’s such an ingrained part of us that it’s impossible to shake.

Old age is seldom a dignified place to be, and few people who live to be that age will speak to otherwise. Believe you me, my late grandfather never let go of the fact that the quad bypass that he received at the age of 75 had crippled him far worse than World War II ever could.

Especially in light of Terri Schiavo, people were forced to wonder, and plan for the event that they’re not able to take care of themselves. And it’s definitely not pleasant. It’s a confirmation that we are every bit as mortal as everyone else, and it elicits knee-jerk reactions to even think about, potentially, choosing your own method of demise.

Terri Schiavo is perhaps not the best person to bring into end-of-life care discussion, but hers was the case that put everything into spotlight. No one will ever know what had caused her initial cardiac arrest. No one will ever know what had caused her potassium levels to bottom out. But we have all seen what happened after nearly eleven years. For over a decade, she had been in a vegetative state, and while she was in this state, her brain continued to degenerate further and further. It’s no mystery that by the time Terri had died, her brain was pretty much liquefied. For her, there was no recovery from the get-go, and throughout the entire decade of her incapacitation, medical science had showed that same conclusion over, and over, and over.

Michael Schiavo stated that by no means would his wife have wanted to stay in this condition. She had, by the point of the debate of her feeding tube, literally lost her capacity to think and feel very much past very, very basic motor reflex functions. There was no person there anymore, in the strictest sense. No soul, no thoughts. Just a body barely kept alive. And Michael Schiavo asked, outright, “How is that dignified?” “How is this not suffering?” “How is this a good way to continue living?”

And he was right in that sense. Our lives, as humans, mean very little if we cannot feel what happens around us, whether physically or emotionally. For Terri, this ended when she was first rushed to the hospital. For the next eleven years, her brain slowly liquefied, and her consciousness never returned.

This put a lot into debate. The concept of a living will was put to the spotlight for the first time, and there was a major spike in those shortly after the battle to remove Terri’s feeding tube was brought to the public eye.

Dr. Kevorkian was only the first to shine the light on choosing one’s death. The same went for a court case in Oregon, which resolved that “assisted suicide” – a term I don’t particularly like – is not a criminal act. But that’s Oregon. And I am sure that there is still so much legal hoopla to set one’s own death method that I doubt people would grasp onto the idea.

In truth, it is something that should be considered, both a living will and the right to die as one sees fit. We, as human beings, don’t get the luxury of choice as to how and to whom we are born. We don’t ever ask for our births; our parents do. Specifically, the mother, since she’s the one doing the birthing. However, what we do once out of the uterus is nothing but a maze of choices. We choose our education, our work, what we do with ourselves, what connections we make, relationships, affairs, marriages, divorces, children, no children…the list goes on. But the start of it is never our own choice. Choosing the end of it…that should be in our hands, if only on a purely intrinsic level.

That is where consent to death comes into play. Dr. Kevorkian often said, “I am helping a suffering patient.” And you know, he is right. Override your thinking for a moment, and look at it objectively. A patient is terminally ill. No longer capable of caring for themselves and, safe to say, never will be. They are in pain, almost always, and I somehow doubt that there is pleasure in the Brompton Cocktail. And, if this is a prolonged illness, then their suffering could drag out for months. Sometimes years.

And these are the exact situations that Dr. Kevorkian was faced with. And he knew, as a medical professional, that these patients took absolutely no joy in having their suffering prolonged.

There’s a lot to think about as far as Dr. Kevorkian’s philosophy of death. It takes one a lot to confront one’s own mortality, but let’s put aside the knee-jerk reactions and think a little about the end stages. We think enough about the past that so few of us will think to map the morbid points of the future.

K.G.

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