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Kevorkian's Legacy: A Physician’s Point of View

Dr. Jack Kevorkian
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Dr. Jack Kevorkian

The debate over doctor-assisted suicide continues to heat up following the recent death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. One advocacy group wants Colorado physicians to have the ability to inform dying patients of their legal end-of-life options but stop short of assisted suicide. This has KUNC commentator Dr. Pius Kamau wondering about Kevorkian’s legacy and just what role assisted suicide should play in the medical community.

When Jack Kevorkian died I felt a pang of sadness and regret for the opportunities lost to Americans and to my fellow medical colleagues. Kevorkian managed single handedly to make the U.S. come face to face with death’s disagreeable face.

Sadly though, our culture is oftentimes presented opportunities that we don’t know how to, or we are unable to exploit. To me Jack Kevorkian’s determination to help people suffering unbearable pain end their lives was one such moment. We didn’t know how to take or react to this brash, apparently undisciplined and arrogant – and to many people – crazy man. More often than not, form and protocol tramp the end result of what’s being done. In Kevorkian’s case, we were unable to distinguish his bizarre behavior from the greater message. He wanted to give human dignity to suffering people, placing the decision of what should be done at the end of their lives in their own hands.

It is claimed that the majority of the 130 suicides he conducted were for people who were not terminally ill. This maybe so. But it misses the point. All human beings should have the right to decide for themselves how, where, and when to end their lives. They should be the ones to decide how much pain they are willing to tolerate.

Oregon, Washington, Montana and several European countries already have provisions for physician-assisted suicide on their statutes. I think that more states in the U.S. should consider allowing their fellow citizens the right to decide when life’s pains and suffering are no longer acceptable living with. Perhaps the medical profession given its intimacy with those moments when our patients are teetering on life’s ledge should be more active in seeing that laws are passed to allow patients to decide on suicide. They more than Kevorkian are best positioned to rationally consider this issue and make informed and rational recommendations. Sadly they are neither leaders nor are they willing to broach the subject of doctor assisted suicide. Rather than lobby political leaders for those in great need of help they opt to let others do their job. 

The ability for physicians to discuss how we end our lives would be helpful in several ways. The mentally ill could be helped to reconsider their desire to commit suicide and live healthier and less painful lives. Those in real pain can be helped overcome their physical pain. And those truly terminally ill can be assisted in their transition.

I regret that Jack Kevorkian was not afforded an assisted suicide during the last chapter of his life, as he had been able to offer others. That said, I think it behooves all of us to talk about the place of suicide and end of life issues. Only by talking about it will we become more informed, and act more proactively about our own lives and how best they should end.

Born in Kenya and trained in Spain, Pius Kamau has been in surgical practice in the Denver area for three decades. He was a columnist for The Rocky Mountain News and has written for The Denver Post. Kamau’s commentaries have also been featured on NPR, in the Huffington Post and other national magazines and newspapers. He’s also contributed to several books and recently finished his memoir.
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