The Death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian


Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his Death Machine

It’s strange somehow to hear that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died.  It’s like hearing that Sara Lee ate cake or Les Schwab had his car repaired.  One rarely thinks that those who work in a field actually experience their work as a customer as well.   Jack Kevorkian advocated for individuals to have the right to terminate their lives with the help of a physician if both feel their quality of life is at such a low level as to make that life no longer livable.  He not only promoted this idea, but participated in physician-assisted suicides many time.  Kevorkian had guidelines for this choice; however, they were much more liberal than any state’s that has passed legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide.

My father, a pharmacist and brilliant man, agreed with Dr. Kevorkian.  After many conversations with Dad about Dr. Kevorkian and his beliefs, I know that Dad believed that if a person’s life did not meet the standards of quality he or she desired, or if an individual had a condition that would cause deterioration of his or her body or mind, the person should be able to choose death instead of suffering.  He also believed that a physician had a responsibility to assist those who could not take their own lives if the patient chose to do so.

My father had a challenge with the chemistry in his brain that caused his mental faculties to progressively diminish.  After his death, we discovered that his condition could have been remediated with medication, but my father did not want to be on that type of medication for the rest of his life.  I suspect he knew the side effects would leave him different from the person he was before.  The problem was that he had already changed dramatically, but because of his condition he could not recognize those changes.  He honestly thought he was the same person he had always been.  He was wrong.  He had become paranoid, angrier, and posed a threat to himself and others.  He made rash decisions and often spoke with vitriol when he felt slighted or ignored.  We felt we could not discuss this with most people as it would further damage my father’s reputation.   The community he served so loyally, respectfully, and compassionately over the years wanted nothing to do with my father as he grew more unpredictable and unpleasant. Our family understood their response, although it hurt us very much nonetheless.

Floyd and James Glica in the 1980s

Dad read Kevorkian’s book and learned about the options for suicide should his life take a negative turn.  In 1999, my father’s worst fears became a reality.  As his mental deterioration continued, our family decided we had to make a decision about placing him in a facility for his own safety and the safety of others.  He was trying to buy a gun to protect himself from people he was certain were trying to kill him.  No one was trying to kill my father.  No one at all.  Although we tried very hard to keep our plans from him, through an error at his physician’s office he found out.  After a great deal of planning, on July 30, 1999, my father drove to a secluded spot in the mountains around his home, put a hose from the exhaust pipe to the back of his covered truck bed, started the car, climbed into the back of his truck, and there, alone, died from carbon monoxide poisoning. I suspect Dad chose this method to die because he read that this type of death was painless and fairly quick.  In his meticulous planning, he sent a note to my mother that day telling her where he could be found. The next day, when the letter arrived in the mail at my aunt’s house where I had sent Mom to ensure her safety, Mom had the police and two of our closest friends go to the spot Dad described.  He was there, dead, no gas left in the GM truck, and his mission accomplished. He did not want to live a life that was less than he dreamed.  What Dad couldn’t see is that his death, let alone in this fashion, was not what we had dreamed either.

As Kevorkian lay in his hospital bed dying, surrounded by those he loved, listening to the classical music he so dearly enjoyed, I wonder if he thought about the lives he changed in which he may not have actively participated, but inspired nonetheless.  I wonder if he understood the anguish of the parents, spouses, children, and siblings who have to deal with the choices these individuals made.  It’s not Kevorkian’s fault certainly, but, at least in my father’s case, he played a role in my father’s choice.

In my faith tradition, suicide has spiritual consequences with which I, for one, would not choose to engage.  I recognize that not everyone agrees with me on this topic.  My father clearly did not agree.  Neither did Jack Kevorkian.  Although I’ve actively cared for people at the end stages of their lives due to cancer and other conditions, I do not claim to understand the depth of agony individuals experience at the end of protracted and savage illnesses. I can say that I understood from the outset why my father chose as he did, but it didn’t help ease the grief for us, especially for my mother.

The irony, of course, is that Kevorkian recently said that he was not ready to die yet because he still had missions to fulfill in his life.  One might contemplate whether a part of Kevorkian’s karma is dying with his life ending unfulfilled.  Perhaps for families like ours was in 1999, his unfulfilled missions are our blessing.

Plaque commemorating the site where my father died.

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