Physician assisted suicide and the right to die; these words bring to most people’s minds the name Dr. Jack Kevorkian or “Dr. Death” as he has been labeled by the media. Dr. Kevorkian designed a “suicide machine” that could terminate a patient’s life through a serious of
intravenous injections. This brought him national attention and ridicule, but there is much more to this subject. There is more than what the surface has shown.
Those who automatically dismiss the subject of physician assisted suicide as immoral likely have no personal experience with loved ones who have suffered through horrible, pain-intensive terminal illnesses.
In 1992, my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She suffered months of exhausting treatment. This was the right choice for her, but it was all for naught. There was a point in her treatment in which the doctors determined that further medical treatment would not save her life.
During the last few weeks of her life, she was in grave pain. The doctor had prescribed the strongest pain medication available at the time, liquid morphine. I was charged with her medical care, along with a friend of hers, during the last few weeks of her life.
In order to keep my grandmother from agonizing pain, I asked the doctor to increase the doses of morphine. At one point, the doctor administered triple and quadruple the amounts of regular morphine doses to my grandmother. The amount had little effect on my grandmother. Many times I thought of increasing the morphine dosage enough so that she would fall asleep and never wake up again. I wanted to the pain away from her forever. I didn’t have to think about that decision for long. Shortly after my grandmother stopped breathing, I realized the cancer had taken her from me and the world. My grandmother’s experience is a good example of what could have been a physician-assisted suicide.
Sounding Board, Death and Dignity (New England Journal of Medicine, March 7th 1991) is an article written by a pseudo-name, Timothy E. Quill, M.D. Quill is a medical physician who goes on to describe about his experience with a former patient of his. This patient, whom he refers to “Diane”, was diagnosed with acute myelomonocytic leukemia. This form of leukemia is terminal. Quill writes that he knew Diane for quite some time and had knowledge of some of the trials and tribulations she had been through in her life. Diane suffered from alcoholism, depression, and uterine cancer. Quill writes that Diane was able to overcome these demons.
Quill informed Diane cancer diagnosis. He also informed her that her cancer treatment would be exhausting and last for months. The treatments would make her extremely sick and weak. Despite the treatment, Diane’s chances of survival would only be twenty-five percent. Quill informs Diane that time is not on her side and treatment would begin immediately. Diane soon realized that her chances of survival were reduced with each passing day. Diane decided that she needed to discuss her options with her family.
Quill writes that Diane returned two days later and informed him that she was refusing further treatment. Diane stated that she realized her chances of survival were reduced with each passing day. Quill was surprised at Diane’s decision. He respected her wish to refuse further treatment. Quill ensured Diane that he would take the necessary steps to make sure that her remaining days would be medically comfortable for her.
Within time, Diane’s symptoms became progressively worse. Diane realized then she didn’t have much time left. Diane requested a prescription for barbiturates from Quill. Quill was familiar with the Hemlock Society, an organization dedicated to fighting for a patient’s right to die. Quill knew that barbiturates are a key ingredient in a Hemlock Society suicide. Quill determined that Diane experiencing trouble sleeping, yet he struggled with her request for barbiturates. Ultimately, Quill prescribed barbiturates for Diane, all the while knowing that she would use them to end her life.
In my opinion, I believe Quill made the right decision regarding Diane. Diane’s story was not about a woman suffering from depression wishing to end her life. Diane’s story is a true life example of an individual faced with a slow, painful death due to a terminal illness. In my opinion, Quill likely felt guilty knowing that Diane would suffer a slow, painful death. The guilt of allowing Diane to suffer a painful death was likely much greater than any guilt he felt about violating the law; professionally or legally. I strongly believe that individuals should think more about the bigger picture physician-assisted suicides. My experience long ago with my grandmother taught me the difference between spirit of the law and the letter of the law.
The Hemlock Society has been an integral part of fighting for patient’s right to die with dignity. On October 27th, 1997, physician-assisted suicide became legal in the State of Oregon for terminally ill patients meeting the requirements of the law. In my opinion, other states should follow Oregon’s lead regarding physician-assisted suicide. The United States Supreme Court is currently examining physician-assisted suicide to determine if our nation will follow Oregon’s lead.